The woman he was about to kill smelled like cinnamon apples. Darco inhaled her scent, isolating it from the crude odor of dog food, from the synthetic pine reek of the cleaner a clerk had used to mop the aisle, from the countless traces of countless smells, deposited on the floor by the boots of countless shoppers. The unexpected, warm scent filled him with an odd need, a kind of curiosity.
Standing as he was, in the next aisle of the deserted warehouse store, he caught only glimpses of her through the open framework: a wave of chestnut hair as she examined the fifty pound bags of Purina Dog Chow, an edge of green T-shirt, legs in pale jeans – nice thighs, he noted. More than enough to give him a target. He could kill her, right here, right now, through the narrow space between the dog food bags and the top of the shelf. But her scent tugged on him. He wanted to see her face, to watch the way she moved.
What’s the harm? He had crossed an ocean and half a continent to kill her. Two extra minutes wouldn’t make any difference. Darco glanced around the warehouse. Huge, echovy, with metal shelves reaching nearly to the thirty foot ceiling, the store lay deserted. He could rip her apart at his leisure. It didn’t matter anyway. He no longer cared about exposure. Even if the half-deserted Sam’s Club had been crowded to the brink, nobody could stop him.
Darco sauntered to the end of the aisle, turned and leaned on the partition, half-hidden by the small mountain of cereal boxes. The girl bent over to grasp the bag of Dog Chow. Smaller than he had expected. With a perfectly-shaped ass, round and pretty against the jeans. She heaved the bag up, leaning it on the cart. The cart slid back under pressure and rolled across the smooth concrete. She let out a quiet growl and half-dropped, half-set the bag on the floor. Darco smirked.
The girl chased the cart down the aisle, caught it, and swung it around, presenting him with her face.
Gods, she was pretty.
He stared at her, drinking in the large grey eyes under dark eyebrows, the full raspberry lips, the pale-honey tint to her skin… Instantly he knew why Gideon had wanted her. She was warm, supple, alive, and he knew by some sixth sense that if he got into her bed, she wouldn’t lay back with her eyes closed and hope it would be over soon. To Gideon, the twisted, bitter thing that he had become, she would’ve meant life. The last chance at a temporary salvation.
The girl wedged the cart against the aisle and reached for the bag with an exasperated snort. He watched her squat and grunt, jerking the bag up. Not the most flattering pose. He had known plenty of pretty women, who’d rather die than squat like that in public.
And why haven’t you killed the keeper, Darco? Because I was overcome by a sudden admiration for her ass. Yeah, that would fly.
Had to kill her quickly. Get it over with, eat her, and be on his way. He had planned to throw a spinner, but changed his mind. To kill her with minimal pain, he’d have to do something quicker and more precise. Slitting her throat was out of the question – it could take her half a minute to die and he didn’t want to look into those grey eyes as she bled in his arms. A thrust to the heart, done right, could be almost instant.
He slipped the knife from his trench coat.
The girl dropped the bag and stiffened. He read panic in the bend of her knees.
A man appeared at the opposite end of the aisle. Darco shifted further back behind the boxes. Shit.
The man approached her. Good suit, slick, out of the place in the warehouse. Darco inhaled deeply, tasting a sampling of scents on his tongue. Let’s see what the cat dragged in…
Julia pinned the buggy with her foot and picked up the bag. It wasn’t the matter of strength as much as leverage: three extra inches of height or another pair of hands would’ve been very welcome right about now.
She heard the sound of approaching steps, turned, and saw a man in aisle ahead. A cold needle of alarm stabbed her. Julia dropped the bag to the floor. No other shoppers in the neighboring aisles.
The man was walking toward her. The urge to grab the buggy and bolt swelled in Julia, threatening to overwhelm reason. She tried to fight it with logic. She wasn’t really alone. Somebody had to be working the register and the butcher section. If she screamed, they would come running. Julia forced herself to draw a deep breath.
The man cut a crisp figure, absurdly well-groomed and well dressed for the Sam’s Club: tall, lean, long-limbed, each line emphasized by an expensive, custom-fit grey suit. His red hair, dark, almost auburn, was brushed away from his forehead, leaving open an aristocratic, narrow face. He would’ve been at home boarding the Concord.
The man stopped a few feet away. Striking eyes: piercing light green. She tightened her grip on the cart, hoping it would keep her from taking off like a rocket at the first sound of his voice.
“May I help you?” His voice was very soft, intimate even.
“No, thanks. I got it.” Steady. It’s just a man. I’m not going to have a relapse just because an attractive man talks to me. I am not going to panic.
He bent down, picked up the bag with no effort at all, and gently placed it into her buggy. “My name is Corvus.”
“Thank you,” Julia said.
Up close she could see the light reddish stubble on his cheeks. It had to be intentional: his hair, his hands with long fingers, his clothes, all offered evidence of a man who paid a lot of attention to his appearance. He smiled at her, a lazy slow curve of well-shaped lips. Handsome before, with the smile he became at once charming and slightly wicked, like an urbane devil masquerading among the ordinary people.
Time to go.
“Thanks again.” Julia pushed her buggy down the aisle. Corvus followed, keeping pace.
“Are the flowers for you?” He looked at the bouquet of purple carnations resting on top of her purse.
She would’ve preferred the plain white carnations, but the dyed kind was all the store had. “Yes. I like flowers.” And if you don’t stop talking to me, I will beat you to death with them. And then I will panic and have a nervous breakdown.
“May I purchase them for you? A woman so lovely should never spend money on flowers.” He delivered the line flawlessly with the same sexy smirk.
“I’m flattered. Really I am.” She rounded the corner. In the distance, past the row of aisles, she saw the pharmacy section. Next to the pharmacy were registers and employees. Other people. She picked up speed. “I’m very flattered but not interested.”
A dark-haired man stepped into the aisle a few yards ahead. Unkempt, dark hair falling over his eyes, his sweeping black trench coat, revealing black jeans and a black T-shirt. Julia winced. Like some gothic Grim Reaper.
“A pity,” Corvus said, his gaze fixed on the other man.
The man in a trench coat grinned, exposing white even teeth. “Mine,” he said in a low growl.
Corvus clasped the side of her cart with his hand, bringing it to a dead stop. “I beg to differ.”
The dark-haired man reached into his trench coat and hurled a blur. A bladed pinwheel streaked through the air, aimed at Julia’s chest. She ducked and froze, as the pinwheel halted six inches from Corvus’s chest. The weapon rotated slowly, suspended in empty air between Corvus’s open arms, the razor-sharp edges of its three blades catching the light of the electric lamps.
Corvus bared his teeth. A wheel of color pulsed from him across the cement floor. Streaks of magenta and gold sparked in a complex pattern. The weapon shot to the side, sliced through the canvas bags, and bit into the wall with a heavy metallic thump. Flour spilled in a powdery cascade.
Light stabbed through the pattern. A small clump of swamp green popped into existence between Corvus’s hands. He arched his back. The clump pulsed, bulging and contracting like a beating heart. Nausea squirmed through Julia in a hot wave. She knew she should scream, run, do something, but she simply froze as if her feet had sunk into the floor.
Corvus clawed the air, his fingers poised like talons. The clump shot forward, tore, and a beast spilled onto the floor. It landed on two thick legs, its muscled lean body hunched over. Black claws scratched the concrete. A monstrous head thrust forward, armed with massive pit-bull jaws. Huge fangs snapped, flinging spit. A harsh, musky stench, reminiscent of tomcat’s spray, filled the air.
Not real. Not real, not real, not real…
The beast sighted the man in the trench coat. A low growl ripped from its throat. It dug at the concrete, leaving pale scratches on the floor, and charged.
The man lunged, swaying out of reach of monstrous jaws, and thrust his hand into the creature’s gut. Yellow ichor drenched his trench coat. The beast twisted, arrested in mid-move. His body collapsed on itself, bones, muscle, leathery hide folding, shrinking, contracting, as if sucked into the man’s arm. The last of the beast vanished. A bulge rolled under the man’s coat, from his wrist, to his shoulder, into his neck. He reached into his mouth, pulled a black claw out and tossed it to Corvus. “Is that all you’ve got?”
The claw slid across the concrete floor and bounced from her boot.
She dashed to the side, slid on the slick floor, caught herself on the table, scattering a display of cheesecake samples on the floor, and sprinted past the clothes tables, past the startled clerks, to the doors and out, into the sunlight of the parking lot. Her heart hammered in her chest. Electric prickling stung her left side. She kept going, legs pumping, mouth dry. Her vision, sharpened by adrenaline to crystal clarity, snapped to her dark Kia Sportage. She veered left, jerking the keys from her pocket.
The locks clicked. She tore the door open, jumped inside, dropping the parking break, and took off in a space of a breath. The Kia cannoned from the parking lot to the outraged honks, careened into a hard right, and shot up the exit onto the highway. Julia’s fingers shook on the wheel. She wedged Kia into traffic and headed east.
It happened. The realization sat in her chest like a huge cold rock. It hurt to breathe.
Gideon had said it would happen and it did.
May be she had imagined it. Her mind thrust the black claw, still wet, rolling across the floor. The memory of the animal’s stench lashed her nostrils. Bullshit. She couldn’t have imagined that.
She took small shallow breaths. Okay. If she had imagined it, she just made an ass out of herself in public. No biggie. If she didn’t imagine it… If she didn’t imagine it, Corvus and the trench-coat now had her purse. With her driver’s license, her bank card, her checkbook. With her address printed on the checks.
Her house wasn’t safe. She had to go somewhere else. All her money was in the purse. All of her freaking life was in that purse, except for her keys. She always carried her keys in her pocket, so if her purse got snatched, at least she could drive home.
She could go to a hotel. She didn’t have a bank card, but she could still walk into the bank and withdraw some money even without the check. No, wait. No ID. How could she have been so stupid? Would it have killed her to grab the purse? It would’ve taken a second. No hotel for her. Too late to hit the bank anyway.
The dogs. They might kill her dogs.
She had to find a hiding place, somewhere safe, somewhere where she could take the Siri and Cer.
That left only one possibility. Every single cell in her rebelled at the very idea of going there, but she had no choice.
Darco sat on the curb next to his BMW Adventure and watched the summoner get into slick silver Lexus. Carrying Julia’s small black purse seriously cramped his style.
Darco flipped the cell phone and pushed a preset. Claudia’s smooth voice answered on the first ring. “What can I do for you?”
“I have a summoner on my ass. Six one, dark red hair, green eyes, looks like euro trash.”
There was a momentary pause. “Denholm Corvus. Born in Germany, citizen of UK. Father: Head of Biochemistry Department at Cambridge, mother: heiress to the Kellerman Hotel chain. Thirty two years old, single, educated, loaded, heterosexual, prefers brunettes. Excellent fencer, good shot, carries Berretta Px4 Storm 9mm. On record can summon up to 9k. Complexity off the scale.”
He could pull a hippo-weight demon and hang as many limbs and attachments onto it as his greedy heart desired. A nine thousand pound demon was a hell of a thing to absorb. And that was on record. What was off the record, was anybody’s guess.
“He’s the best the Summoner Clan has to offer. The Council advises to stay the fuck away from him if you can help it.”
“Thanks.” He snapped the phone closed.
Any other time he would’ve taken Corvus on. But Julia was too important. The chances of either one of them killing her but failing to hold on to the transfer were too high. They had backed off simultaneously, not willing to chance it. Like wrestling for a goddamn glass statue. We both want it but neither of us can let it break.
The Lexus pulled out of the parking lot, heading east. Going back to Julia’s place. Darco grimaced. Julia would realize she’d left her purse and expect visitors. But she would go back to the house, if only for a moment. No woman that struggled that hard with a bag of dog food would abandon her dog, and he bet she had more than one. She would grab the dogs and bail to some place she thought safe, and judging by how fast she had taken off, she would be long gone before Corvus arrived to her house.
Darco stretched his shoulders, closed his eyes, and quested. A small knot of power flared in the distance, moving north-north west. Yep, she had already left the house. Fast girl.
You can’t outrun blood though. And Gideon had been an eater before he became just Gideon. Darco pulled his bag open and dropped the spinner and both knives into it. He traded the trench coat for a battered leather jacket, stuffed the coat into the bag, mounted his bike and put on a helmet. Being stopped by cops would cost time and time was short.
“She is at the house.” Marianna’s voice murmured into Corvus’s headset. “We’re waiting for her in the living room.”
Corvus glanced at the small digital display of the tracker, showing Julia’s vehicle moving south west. “Are you sure?”
“She just pulled into the driveway.”
Corvus shifted into the left lane. The tracker still insisted Julia headed south-west. He was almost on top of her. He had installed the tracking unit himself while in Sam’s parking lot. He was absolutely sure he had put on the right vehicle. “Keep her alive. Do not injure her at any cost.”
The small red light representing Julia’s Kia flared with green. “Target: one hundred feet,” a smooth female voice announced.
“She stopped midway up the driveway. She is still in the car. She just opened the yard gate.”
She must have a remote, Corwus thought. He should’ve told them to disable the automatic gate opener.
“Target: fifty feet.”
“The dogs are running to the car.” Very smart, Julia.
“Target: twenty five feet.”
“She opened the passenger door.”
“Target: ten feet.” He pushed the Lexus, edging dangerously close to the white truck before him. The driver switched lanes, revealing a small Jeep.
“The dogs are in the car. Permission to move?”
A small bumper sticker decorated the rear bumper of the Jeep: black grinning skull with a fool’s cap. Inwardly Corwus swore.
“Permission denied,” he said into the headset.
The jeep shifted into the right lane and dropped its speed, drawing even with him. The driver, a young black woman, grinned and stuck her middle finger in the air.
“Follow Julia,” Corwus said. “And watch your back. Animators are in the game.”
The house sat in the middle of the field, cold and empty. Julia had a distinct feeling that it watched her with suspicious eyes of its windows. She clenched her teeth. Doesn’t matter. Even if she had imagined the entire insane episode in the store, she was here now. It was late. The house belonged to her now and it would obey, damn it.
Just try anything, she thought, pushing the garage remote. I’ll torch you to the ground.
The garage door slid up with an angry creak. Julia guided the Kia inside, shut off the engine, and closed the door with the remote. The electric light illuminated the empty garage. She sat quietly for a few breaths, hesitating to move, listening for some noise, some hint of trouble, ready to reverse and get the hell out, through the garage door, if necessary, and then Siri bumped her with her cold nose. Julia petted the dog’s huge fawn head. There are three of us. We can handle this.
She opened the driver door and let the dogs out. The huge boerboels sniffed at the garage, but hugged her legs, picking up her anxiety. Julia slid the key into the lock, opened the door and let the dogs trot into the kitchen. She swallowed, stepped into kitchen, locked the door and stared at the dark house.
It looked just like the regular kitchen: a stainless steel refrigerator humming quietly next to the door, pine cabinets, a counter broken by the dishwasher and the electric stove. White curtains with green ivy motif on the windows. It made her skin crawl.
Cer came back for her and nudged her legs. The dogs had checked out the house and found no strangers lurking in the gloom. It’s us who are strangers here, she thought.
The first step was the hardest. She took it with great trepidation, struck by an irrational fear that the tiled floor would gape like a maw of some monstrous beast and clamp her foot. The second step was easier, the third easier still, and before she knew it, she rushed into the house, through the kitchen, into the hallway, and into the master bedroom.
The last room she wanted to visit. This was good. She had to get it out of her system. She looked at the wooden paneling, her gaze pulled to the dark spot to the right of the bed. That’s where the vine had sprouted, the one that had leashed her by her throat for four days, until she gave up and let Gideon fuck her in the mouth.
They said it was a rope. They said she had been traumatized and delusional. But she remembered the vine, remembered the feel of the bark on her neck, the same way she remembered the windows that whipped her with pain when she touched them and the front door that would open only for Gideon.
Julia looked at the bed. It had all new sheets now, new mattress, new box springs, new comforter. She had spent almost two years in this bed, next to Gideon, existing, sleeping, rutting. What they had couldn’t be called love, because he had killed it when he had starved her, and after the first month she no longer wanted to call what he had done rape, because she had taken that extra step and met him halfway. She had hated herself for it, had been ashamed of it, and now she had come to terms with it. Sometimes she had enjoyed their sex, on a purely animal level, eager for the simple release of happy hormones, the only source of change that was in her power to experience.
Julia raised her chin. She was strong enough to admit it to herself. More she was strong enough to have admitted it to Hannah.
Julia sat down on the bed. She could almost see Gideon now, standing in the middle of the room, blond hair down to his hips, angelic face blank the way it often was. She saw the blade in his hands. She tasted his seed on her tongue.
The phantom gunshot sounded so loud, she jerked, unsure it was only a memory. Her pulse thudded in her ears. She froze, straining to catch the slightest noise, but all was quiet.
Hannah had urged her to sell the house many times. To let go.
She couldn’t let strangers in here. Not in here, not into this bedroom.
Julia rose from the bed. “I will kill you first,” she said aloud. The house gave no indication that it had heard her, but she knew it understood.
She had survived this. She would survive whatever else decided to step into her way. Julia picked up the pewter box from the dresser, and left the bedroom, wishing she could’ve shut the door.
Darco stood in the shadow of a large maple. Two hundred yards down, the house perched in the middle of a grassy clearing, bordered by brush and white oak. Looked like any regular country house, white siding, green roof, half a second story, a single car garage. No flowers. No trees close to the house. No junk dotting the lawn.
Darco tasted the scents. The wind brought the odor of grass, the smell of cow manure from down the road, a slightly sweet, sickening stench of road kill decomposing somewhere to the left, and the sharp musk of a feral cat eating it.
He felt nothing. Julia had disappeared off the radar.
He had tracked her down to the beginning of this road and then she’d vanished into thin air, invisible to him. He seriously doubted she could mask herself. It had to be the house. He had driven past it, but saw only fields, so he’d doubled back, hid the bike in the brush and circled the clearing. Now the house lay between him and the road, presenting him with an excellent view of the back door. If Julia was inside, she hadn’t turned on the lights.
The sun was rolling off the sky, ready to touch the horizon. Twilight spawned in the shadows under the trees. It would be dark soon. He didn’t have much time before Corvus got here. Darco started toward the house.
He covered about ten feet before the hair on his arms rose and the flesh on the back of his neck prickled lightly, as if touched by ghostly fingers. A defensive spell. She couldn’t have set it. That left only one conclusion: Gideon must’ve done it for her.
Darco crouched, pulled a shuriken from his belt and nicked his finger. Blood to blood. He flung a single drop toward the house. The liquid sparked with pale orange light. The glow drained down, and spread through the soil, running in both directions like falling dominoes, highlighting a narrow strip of orange glyphs bordering the house in a perfect, four hundred yard-wide circle. Blue ignited a few feet past the first strip, as the second concentric ward came to life. Carmine light stabbed from the ground beyond the blue, followed by more shades of orange, yellow, white, turquoise, more and more, all the way to the walls. In a blink the house sat in a glowing aurora borealis, the countless strips of glyphs shivering lightly against the gloom. Darco stepped back, stunned. So many…
The light show wavered and died. He still saw the smoldering outlines of the glyphs in the ground. Once revealed to him, they would stay plain.
He had found Gideon’s house.
Darco stared at the layers of spells, one after another, spells it would’ve taken Gideon decades to build. He had never realized just how crazy Gideon was. He knew, he had been told, but he didn’t realize it. This was beyond insanity.
Darco tapped the shuriken against his lips. Think. He was an eater. Kin. Blood. They thought alike. We are what we eat…
He’d block the human influence first. Keep half the clans out, force them to expend their resources breaking through. Darco shrugged off his jacket and pulled off his T-shirt. Boots, pants, and underwear followed, the weapons falling onto the jacket as he undressed. Knives, a Sig Sauer, shurikens, charms, cell phone. He rolled it all into his jacket, tying the sleeves into a tight bundle and hurled it at the house. It fell a few feet from the backdoor. Good enough. He doubted anyone would get to it any time soon.
The evening breeze shifted Darco’s hair. He curled his toes in the slick grass, stretched his chest, popped his neck, turning his head one way, then the other, and pushed. His calves swelled, turning pale green. His spine curved, bending his back forward. His bones shifted, crawling, twisting, stretching the tendons and muscle. He flowed, malleable and pliant, until his body snapped with a rubbery memory into a new yet familiar shape. He had to give it to Corvus: this was a good construct, compact, strong, fast, and with a low energy barrier. He blinked two sets of eyelids and bit the air with his pit-bull jaws, working the kinks out of the mandible. Yellowish streaks of spit flung in the air. A drooler. Oh well, he thought, stepping over the first strip of glyph with a clawed foot. You can’t have everything.
He walked over the second barrier with ease: it meant to block something of a much larger body mass, but the third spell locked out the non-human. He drained down to his natural body, crossed, and probed the fourth ward. Mass-based, designed to be breached with pure pressure. Shit. The impact of his flesh wasn’t sufficient to push through. Darco gauged the intensity of the glyphs and shifted into a Biter, upping his mass to a thousand pounds.
The next two wards demanded additional mass increases. He paused before the seventh, his long serpentine body squeezed into a space between two wards that was barely four feet wide.
Too much power.
He was now almost 4K heavy, as much as a fully grown male white rhinoceros. He would have to go up the mass scale to force through the next ring, and there was no guarantee that the barrier following this one wouldn’t demand more mass. He could’ve shifted into an 8K from the start – although the mass was nothing to sneeze at, the complexity didn’t matter – but the constant reshaping tired him out. Already he had to concentrate to keep the shape. Darco glanced to the space separating him from his target. A hundred yards and change. At least fifteen more wards. This was impossible.
If the next ward demanded a human, and the one after that needed an additional mass increase, he would be too worn out to continue. He would be stuck between the wards, an easy target for any prick with a gun.
And even if he got inside and did away with Julia, he’d be worn-out to nothing. But that point the clans would show up in force. He would have to fight his way out.
Gideon had meant for Julia to be found. He wouldn’t have made her otherwise. The house was a puzzle box with a precious prize at its center.
Draco looked up. He could see the faint edges of the wards stretching up into the sky to clash overhead, one under another. They merged above the house into an impenetrable dome.
Sure, they merged above. But what about below? He realigned his body, going thinner, dropping excess mass, growing a multitude of false legs, shielding his head with chitin. The effort taxed him. Finally he raised his head on a segmented body and plunged into the rock-hard dirt. As he slivered into the hole he had made, he felt a jolt of a melding taking place. The competition had arrived.
In the kitchen Julia opened the pewter box and took out the locket. A huge almond-shaped gem, almost two inches long, swayed gently, suspended on a simple silver chain. She held it on her palm. The gem shimmered, a vivid red, highlighted by tiny light inclusions of pink and accented by deep ambivalent purple. A rubellite tourmaline. She peered into its depth. Gideon’s weapon of last resort. Well that was all fine and good, but she would need more than that.
Putting the chain around her neck felt strangely symbolic, so she wounded it around her wrist instead and looked at the gun on the table. A Walther P22, ten rounds. The rest of the ammunition was in her house. She had thought about going in for it, but sudden anxiety had grabbed her at the edge of the driveway.
Julia released the magazine, looked at the bullets, comforted by the substantial, solid feeling of metal in her hand, snapped the magazine back in, and chambered a round. Just in case. The kitchen seemed as good of a place to make a stand as any other.
The episode at Sams seemed hazy. Distant, disconnected from reality, like a half-forgotten nightmare. She wondered for the tenth time if she had imagined it. What if she had? The possibility was almost too pathetic: a man had come on to her and two hours later she sat in a dark kitchen, here, in the house she hated, too afraid to turn on the lights, her imagination spinning out of control.
Is this what the rest of my life going to be like? She wasn’t sure what scared her more: the possibility of a real supernatural threat or the thought of a serious relapse. She had spent such a long time clawing her way back from the hysterical animal Gideon had made out of her, panicky one minute, catatonic the next. Anything but that. Perhaps she should’ve taken Hannah’s offer of medication. But she had been doing so well.
Through the gap between the curtains, she could see the dirt driveway and part of the yard. Outside dusk claimed the field. The shadows under the trees bordering the road had grown inky black. Julia shivered, reached for the phone, and dialed Hannah’s number.
“Hello, you’ve reached Dr. Santiago. I am not available right now…”
“Hannah, it’s me.” Her voice came out strained.
The phone clicked and Hannah’s voice said, “Julia? What’s the matter?”
“How are you?”
“What’s wrong?” Hannah’s voice offered kindness and as always, Julia hung on to it, using it as an anchor.
“I think I had an incident this afternoon. In a store. A man came up to me… It didn’t go well.” Something shifted in the gloom by the road. She leaned closer to the window.
“Where are you?”
“I’m back at the house.” She hadn’t meant to emphasize it but the way it came out left no doubt what house she was referring to.
At the end of the driveway, a contorted shape flickered through the bushes, almost too fast to follow. Her heart skipped a beat.
“Sit tight. I’m coming to get you.”
The shape scuttled into the open, moving on all fours. Stick-thin, with limbs too long and knees bent backward, the thing stared straight at her with glowing pale eyes. The tiny hairs on the back of her neck rose.
The creature arched its back, throwing its head back on a thin brown neck, and heaved. A streak of mucus burst from its mouth. Julia jerked back. A pulse of blue light flashed. The mucus splashed against empty air, as if an invisible wall blocked the driveway, and slid down.
“Julia, are you there?”
Two more things leaped from the bushes. They danced along the invisible boundary. Behind them darkness rose. A sixteen foot tall figure emerged from the trees. It strode forward on unsteady legs, a grotesque, vaguely humanoid collection of lumps.
That’s one hell of a relapse.
The colossus smashed against the wall. Red burst from the swellings, drenching the barrier, but no sound came.
“Everything is fine, Hannah. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have called you.” Julia tried to keep her voice even. The phone shook in her hand. She had to make it good. She had to make herself sound perfectly normal, or Hannah would jump in her SUV and drive over. Her imagination painted Hannah’s GMC crushed under the giant’s misshapen foot.
“As your therapist and as your friend, I think it would be best if you didn’t sleep in that house. Let me come and get you.”
The colossus battered the wall, painting it with bloody smudges. A lump fell off and she recognized the familiar shape, complete with four legs, a square head, and a long tail. A cow.
A hard, hot clump blocked her throat. Julia tried to swallow, but it refused to budge, lodged just under her mouth.
The light on the phone blinked, indicating an incoming call. Nobody had this number. Nobody except the phone company even knew it existed.
At the invisible wall another bloody bovine stump tumbled to the ground. Julia closed her eyes and forced the words out. They came out dull, stripped of any affect, and she strained, desperate to put some life into her voice. “Listen, I think it’s actually for the best. Now that I’m here, I actually feel kind of better. “
“Better in what way?” Hannah asked.
“Like it’s not a big deal. I am going to head back home soon. I’ll call you back.”
“It’s okay, Hannah. Honestly. It’s okay. I’ll see you later.” She pushed the flash button on her machine, connecting to the new line.
“Hello, Julia.” The man’s voice was soft, kind, full of regret. Corvus. She wanted to say something but her teeth locked and wouldn’t part.
“You must’ve noticed the golem by now. It belongs to the melders.”
Instinctually she rose and went through the kitchen, to the living room, and deeper, to the guest bedroom, following his voice even though it came through the phone. She paused at the bedroom window and drew the heavy mauve curtain aside.
A lone figure stood in the field, silhouetted against the dimming magenta clouds backlit by no longer visible sun. She couldn’t see his features, but she recognized the way he stood, leaning back slightly.
“The golem has no hope of breaking through. Gideon’s defenses are too strong. It’s merely staking out the claim for its makers. With a prize of this magnitude, we can expect a large crowd.”
“Am I the prize?” she asked, suddenly tired.
“Yes. I’m very sorry, Julia. I didn’t want it to happen this way. I think you are beautiful.”
The line went dead.
She pushed the disconnect button a few times, hoping for a signal, but the line was silent.
I think you are beautiful.
Julia looked at the man in the field. She would need more weapons. The night had fallen and she was trapped.
Darco hated digging. He hated to be constrained by the tunnel he had dug, hated the smells of deep earth, hated the effort it took to sliver through it, but most of all he hated to be blind.
He shivered his feelers, tasting the gritty, acidic soil. He guessed he was directly under the house now. He had to burrow much deeper than he had anticipated to get under the wards, straight down, stuck for what felt like eternity upside down in a shaft suspiciously resembling a grave. His insect body had no soreness receptors. He couldn’t feel the lactic buildup, and when he ran out of steam, he would simply stop and revert back to his human form. Shrinking from a nine-foot-long, three-foot-wide centipede into a six-foot tall human would leave a lot of room. At worst the tunnel would cave in, and he would suffocate, buried alive. Always a cheery way to go. At best, he’d be out for several hours. By the time he slept off the fatigue, the prize would be long gone.
Darco burrowed upward. Too bad Gideon was dead. He would’ve liked to kill the bastard for putting him through this subterranean hell. True, Gideon would’ve crushed him with a snap of his fingers, but right now he was pissed off enough to try anyway.
The burn of the ward was so sudden, at first he didn’t realize it for what it was. It punched the first row of ganglia, near his head, setting the knot of nervous tissue on fire, signaling a warning, but he had been moving too fast to heed it, and a moment later the spell slammed against his human mind.
The brain could not feel pain, but the sensitive web of nerves in which it was couched could and did. Thousands of pin-sized stabs pierced his segmented thorax, as if a myriad of glass needles simultaneously impaled him within the tunnel.
Darco flailed. The pain spread, sinking deeper, running along his body like fire along the detonation cord. He convulsed. The insect form, so obedient and pliant before, gyrated out of his control.
The glass needles grew red-hot.
He had to regain mastery over this body or his convulsions would collapse the tunnel.
The needles exploded in short jagged bursts. White haze wrapped his mind in an inferno, and Darco screamed.
“Did you hear that?” Julia paused with a plastic bottle of lighter fluid in her hand. Both boerboels stared at the kitchen floor as if expecting a cobra to snap at them from between the boards.
Another howl rolled from bellow, an eerie, pain-laced screech that sent a shudder through her. She winced. She wasn’t sure it was human–couldn’t be, not coming from under the house– but whatever it was making the tortured noise had to be in abject agony.
Julia put the lighter fluid on the table and surveyed her arsenal: a gathering of knives, a heavy cast-iron pan, a gun, a lighter… She wished she had more.
Darco pushed himself forward another inch, through the fire. The movement sent a fresh spasm through his body. The ward flayed him, trying to rip him apart. He pushed on, concentrating on what lay on the other end: the keeper. Power. Freedom. Life.
Another inch, another spasm.
The pain had built to a crescendo.
He had to do this. For the clan. For himself. He was the best.
The pain shattered his thoughts into tiny fragments. Only direction remained: up, up, up. Another inch.
A sharp explosion in his nerves sent him teetering on the edge of consciousness. He scrambled to hold on, and then it was over. Darco rolled into a tight ball, shivering. He felt the angry seething of the ward below him, less than a foot away. He’d made it through.
Gradually the pain subsided. He straightened and shook his feelers. An echo bounced back into his receptors. Something solid blocked his way a few yards ahead. The floor. Finally.
He shot up, digging with renewed strength, picked up speed, and rammed the barrier with a loud thud. It creaked and groaned, but refused to give.
Darco slivered back in the tunnel and paused, realigning the chitin into a thick, sharp horn on his head, turning himself into a biological battering ram. He formed two human eyes but kept them closed. Above him the creaking grew louder.
He sent another wave of sound at the barrier. The vibration told him the barrier gained depth. It was as if the floor above him had grown thicker.
His chitin horn thrust through barrier. Wood screamed in protest, and he burst into fresh air. His eyes snapped open. The view swam, slightly out of focus. He saw a dim figure raise her hands together.
A gun barked twice, spitting bullets and thunder. Something bounced off his horn and a hot angry bee stung his shoulder.
Julia fired in short controlled bursts.
Aim. Pull the trigger.
The thing in the dining room’s floor flailed, wedged in the ruined boards. Segmented, like an enormous centipede, it strained to break free, its legs slapping the boards in hysterical frenzy. The sharp sword-like horn atop its head melted into a flat carapace. She kept firing. The bullets bounced off the armored head, but rivulets of clear liquid wetting its sides told her at least a couple had hit.
The giant centipede convulsed, but the boards clung to it.
Boom! Boom! Click.
She had emptied the clip. The centipede seemed no worse for wear.
Fear drenched Julia. She gritted her teeth and hurled the useless gun at the centipede. The Wastler bounced off its head with a heavy metallic clunk. She backed two steps into the kitchen, swiped the ceramic bowl full of lighter fluid off the counter, and dumped it on creature in arch of glistening liquid. The centipede jerked, deflating. Julia grabbed the can of pressurized wasp spray and flicked a lighter. The spray shot from the can, caught the tiny fire of the lighter, and burst into flame. The orange fire licked the centipede and spread, running over the flesh-colored carapace.
The insect screeched. Julia retreated further into the kitchen and grabbed the first thing she touched, a heavy cast iron pan. It took both of her hands to hold it like a bat. Her heart hammered against her ribs.
“Hold still,” a man’s voice growled. The centipede’s skin tore. A wet human arm thrust through the chitin. The arm clawed the floor. “I’ll make it quick. It won’t hurt.”
Hit him now, flashed in her head.
She charged. He scrambled out of the hole, the last of the centipede sucked into his back in a sickening whirlpool of flesh. The frying pan met him half-way. The blow knocked him to the left, into the wreck of the dining room table. She followed, swinging.
He leaped at her from half-crouch. Steel hand clamped her wrist. She dropped the pan and punched him in the mouth with her free hand. Pain bounced into her hand – like dropping a brick on her knuckles. He let go, his face slapped with surprise, and she scrambled away, into the kitchen.
“Fuck it!” He marched at her, eyes blazing. Julia’s back hit the cold steel of the fridge. Nowhere to run.
In that moment the unfairness of it hit her. He would kill her in this house, the house that had guarded and served Gideon. The house that was now hers. “Protect me, god dammit!” she screamed.
The kitchen exploded. Drawers shot from the kitchen cabinets, crashing into the man. The table slid across the floor and wedged itself in his way. Vines whipped from the ceiling, winding about the man’s arms. Julia stared, stunned into immobility. She could not longer see him beneath the debris.
A drawer flew and splintered against the wall. Julia jerked. Another followed. The table snapped in a half with a deafening crack and the man emerged, ripping the vines off his skin. With an inhuman snarl, he lunged at her, his contorted face demonic in its fury. His huge hand clamped her throat, pinning her to the fridge. Behind him the doorway yawned. The walls bent, and awful groans echoed through the rooms as the house stretched, struggling to reach them.
The world shrank to the man before her. She saw him with crystal clarity, each aspect of his face perfectly clear, each minute movement sharp and distinct. He drew back his right arm, a sharp piece of a broken board in his hand poised at her chest. His hazel eyes stared at her, unblinking.
She saw herself thrust her left hand up, almost as if it belonged to someone else. Gideon’s rubellite dangled from her wrist like a bloody tear. The key word left her lips in a hoarse whisper.
Brilliant red light shot from the gem into the man’s face. He screamed and clamped his hands over his eyes. The red rays stabbed through his fingers. He shuddered, dropped his hands, and looked at her with eyes full of ruby radiance.
Julia held her breath.
The man blinked, once, twice. The red drained from his eyes. He grabbed a knife off the table, flicked his arm up, and stabbed. Julia squeezed her eyes shut.
The knife thudded into the fridge with a clang. No pain came.
Julia opened her eyes. The man stared at the blade, bewildered and stabbed again. The knife hit the steel two inches from her cheek. The man dropped the knife. Both of his hands closed about her throat. He strained. The cords of muscle on his forearms bulged, but she felt no pressure.
“No,” he said. “No, no, no…”
The flesh crawled on his bones. He whipped higher, twisting, flowing, turning into a green lizard with a fat wrinkled gut. Yellow spikes snapped up along his spine. The scaled gut contracted. A fountain of yellow ichor erupted from the lizard’s maw. The ichor parted in mid-air, splashing on both sides of her. Steaming yellow goo covered the floor and part of the counter. Julia looked down at her clothes. Not a drop.
The lizard boiled. Bones jutted, tendons stretched, scales melted. A six-foot tall juggernaut formed in its place. Blue armored plates sheathed a squat hippopotamus body on six stubby legs. The beast backed away and charged, sideswiping across the floor. The huge armored side slid about to crush her. Julia gasped. The body rolled and stopped an inch from her. She felt nothing. The fear that had petrified her fled. In its place remained shocked dullness. As if in a dream, she reached out and touched the blue armor. It felt like fine sandpaper.
The blue stretched, snapping into new shape. Spikes burst, impaled the fridge around her, and melted.
Julia stood still, as the chimeras paraded before her one after another, mesmerized by the transformations. Finally the flesh dance stopped. A nine-foot-tall obsidian meld of a gargoyle and Hollywood werewolf sagged before her, breathing hard.
“Not working?” she asked.
Vines dripped from the ceiling, sneaking up on the monster.
“Are you done?” she asked.
The creature folded on itself, draining down into a man. The recognition hit her – the Grim Reaper from Sams.
“You can stop trying to kill him now,” she told the house. The vines hesitated, as if not sure, then withdrew.
The man looked at her with clear brown eyes. “Fucking Gideon,” he said. “I’m so fucking tired.” He swayed and collapsed onto the floor with all the grace of a sack of potatoes.
Julia took a step. The wall between the living room and kitchen lay in shambles. The sink sprayed water in a small geyser, washing the gutted cabinets. The fridge that had sheltered her looked like a melted candle squeezed in someone’s fist and full of foot-long needles, a vague outline of her body preserved, its metal pristine. Something fell on her head. She brushed at it, frowned at the small piece of wood in her hand, looked up… The ceiling was gone, and through the giant hole she saw the water heater, stuck in the roof and crumpled like an empty soda can.
“You know,” she said to the house. “I should’ve taken Hannah up on those meds.”
The phone rang. Its base, mounted on the wall, had miraculously survived, but the phone itself wasn’t in the base. She scrambled toward the sound, stumbling over the ruins of the table. She dug under the wooden shards, poked her finger on a sharp edge, and stuck her finger in her mouth, tasting the metallic saltiness of blood. Finally she pulled the phone free.
“This is Marianna,” a woman’s voice told her with professional briskness. “I’m calling on behalf of Corvus. Unfortunately he cannot speak to you himself, as he is concentrating on burning through the fifth ward. We heard a most dreadful noise and gun shots. Are you alive?”
“What kind of moronic question is that? How could I answer the phone if I wasn’t alive?”
“She is alive!” Marianna reported. A ragged cheer broke out on the other end of the phone. “Are you gravely injured?”
“No external bleeding? No tenderness anywhere?”
“She is fine!”
Another cheer went up.
“Why do you want to know?” Perhaps Corvus was the answer to this dilemma. If he cared enough to wonder about her well-being…
“It is imperative we get to you in time to kill you, which unfortunately, can’t take place if you’re already dead. I’d like to assure you that Corvus is doing everything in his power to break through as fast as he can, shortening your ordeal.”
“You are all insane.” Julia pushed the disconnect button and threw the phone across the room. “What is this?” She kicked a pile of debris. “We’re glad you’re alive, hold on, we’re coming to kill you? What is wrong with me? Am I totally nuts?”
The house offered no answers. She threw her hands in the air and climbed over to the garage door to let the dogs in.
The scent of rubbing alcohol nipped at Darco’s nostrils. He opened his eyes and saw two fawn dog muzzles. Two sets of black lips trembled in a warning, showing him long, sharp teeth.
“Heel,” Julia’s voice ordered.
The dogs backed off to the couch, where she sat, and plopped on their haunches, displaying massive chests. Stocky, broad, they looked like overgrown pit-bulls with mastiff heads. The female could weigh close to a hundred and twenty pounds. The male probably clocked at a hundred and fifty. Their stares left no doubt as to what they wanted to do to him.
Twelve feet separated him from the Julia. The dogs would prove to be a problem.
On the couch Julia petted a length of a metal pipe. “I wouldn’t try anything if I were you.” Two growls reverberated in thick throats, punctuating her words.
He shifted his feet under the blanket covering him. Not tied. “Wouldn’t think of it.”
The dogs charged in the same instant he leaped to his feet. He smashed his arm into the female, batting her out of the way, dodged the male, swiped the pipe off the couch, and rammed Julia with it. The pipe mysteriously missed and he landed atop of her, his forearm across her throat. He strained, trying to choke the life out of her, willing her to die. His arm met resistance an inch from her skin, an invisible barrier he couldn’t break.
Fangs bit his thigh. He pushed harder. Julia smashed her forehead into his nose. Pain bloomed between his eyes. He growled and clutched at her, and they rolled from the couch in a tangle of limbs, the dogs atop of them.
Julia’s voice snapped like a whip. “Cer, Siri, down! Down now!”
The dogs went down, and her furious eyes stared into his.
“Get off of me,” she ground out.
“Okay. Easy.” He pushed up and gained his feet.
She got up off the floor. “You can’t kill me.”
“I got it.” He raised his hands, palms to her. “We’re cool.”
He turned away from her and snapped a kick that should’ve broken her neck. Instead it ricocheted from the same impenetrable wall. The dogs hit him like two furry canon balls, knocking him off his feet. Darco rolled as he fell and clasped the male’s neck in his hands. He squeezed the fury throat and kicked the female off. The male’s breath whistled through his teeth. Darco squeezed harder, growling. At least his body still worked against the dog.
The metal pipe landed on his head. The world swam.
“Let my dog go!”
A flurry of blows rained on his arms. He curled into a ball, trying to protect his eyes and nuts. The pain began to recede – too much exertion, too soon. He was slipping under again…
A ghostly howl cut through the fuzz separating him from the reality. Jagged, impossibly shrill, it sliced his ear drums and sent window glass into vibrations. The dogs howled in unison. Julia dropped the pipe and clamped her hands over her ears.
The shriek built and built. The house shuddered, the furniture knocking against the walls, the boards of the floor drumming as if trying to rip themselves free. Darco drank it in, found the human voice in the demonic cacophony, and laughed.
The howl died. The human scream lasted a moment longer and then it too vanished, cut off abruptly.
The girl stared at him. A heavy, nasty reek spread through the house, like the stench of a greasy piece of meat cooked too long.
“They found my hole,” he said with a smile.
Darco watched Julia tighten the cap on a plastic bottle of rubbing alcohol. The female dig licked a spot on her shoulder and recoiled at the burning taste.
“What is it with you and that stuff?” His voice was hoarse.
“I don’t want their scratches getting infected. For the record, I regret wasting it on you. If I knew you would wake up and go apeshit, I wouldn’t have sterilized your wounds.”
Why would you sterilize anything on a man who tried to kill you? His thigh ached. He looked at the red swollen edges of gashes marking dog bites on his left thigh. The bites stung, almost like burns. Cute.
He concentrated on knitting the muscle together. Slow going. Still fucking tired.
“You’re going to try killing me again?” she asked.
He almost reached for her, but stopped. No use. “No. I’m all tried out.”
She grabbed her pipe.
“No, I mean it this time. I’m done. Fertig. Basta. Finished.” He groaned. Something nagged at him just under his left shoulder blade, an itch deep in the muscle he couldn’t scratch. He turned on his stomach. “Is there something on my back? Left side?”
“A bullet hole,” Julia said.
“Let me guess, you poured rubbing alcohol on it?”
She rolled her eyes.
“Thanks,” he said dryly. He put his head on his crossed hands and concentrated on shifting the muscle, flexing, pulling… The obstruction lodged in his flesh moved under the careful press of the muscle. A warm gush slicked his back. Darco shut his eyes, grimacing, pushing harder. Finally the obstruction popped free and rolled to the floor. A flattened bullet. Instantly the pain subsided and he lay flat, enjoying the warm soreness of a muscle beginning to repair itself.
“What’s down there? Under the house, I mean,” she asked.
“A bitch of a ward. Some summoner tried to send a demon through it.”
“What happened to the demon?”
“It died. In a lot of pain.” The more interesting question was, what happened to the summoner? Rumor said losing a demon to a ward meant all kinds of hurt. Was it good for you, Corvus? He listened.
No noises filtered in through the outside. They stopped pounding the wards. That kind of thing would give anybody pause.
The male dog crawled closer and sniffed at the blood-stained bullet. Draco snatched it with a quick snap of his hand and showed his teeth to the dog. “Mine.”
The dog licked the spot where the bullet had been.
Marco held the bullet up between his index finger and thumb. “A .22 bounces off of wet laundry. Try a .9 mm next time. And you know, it helps to check if the bullet is still in the hole before you drench it with that crap.”
“How was I suppose to know the bullet was still inside?”
“No exit wound.”
He looked at her. She knelt on the floor, her legs tucked under her. So close. She might as well be a thousand miles away in the middle of the moon for all good it would do him. He blew it. To have come so far and be stopped by a friendship seal. Had it happened to somebody else, he’d be rolling on the floor laughing.
The trick was not to think about it, he decided. If he let the enormity of his screw-up sink in, he would start beating his fool head against the first available hard surface. He had been so fucking close. Almost had her. Almost didn’t count. He’d have to go back to the clan and explain how he had failed. And before that he’d have to get by all the other hopefuls besieging the house. Ugh.
As if on cue, muffled thumping sounded through the house, like a heavy beating of some giant heart. Something solid was ramming the outer wards. Didn’t take them long to come out of it.
Darco rubbed his face. His whole body ached. Overdid it hard this time. “How long was I out?”
“Maybe thirty minutes?”
Not nearly enough. He needed an eight-hour nap and a steak dinner. He got up, trying to stand straight while his knees shook, and headed for the door.
“Why did you try to kill me?”
Here we go. He kept walking, concentrating on putting one foot before the other. If he stayed in the house, he’d just try to kill her again and it wouldn’t work. Why torture himself?
“Just tell me why I’m on your hit list?”
He could’ve sworn the front door used to be right there, but instead a blank wall greeted him. A wall with no gaps or hinges. Adorned by a door handle. Fucking Gideon and his fucking house.
“People are calling me and telling me that they’re thrilled I’m still alive and would I please hold on until they get through so they can kill me.”
He paused. “They actually called you?”
“Assholes.” He smirked. “Let me guess, the summoners? They’re efficient that way.”
He turned back to the door. There had to be a way to make it open. Out of the corner of his eye he caught a flutter of movement above him. A network of vines formed on the ceiling, slightly to the left of his head, and crept lower, twisting into a loop suspiciously resembling a noose.
“Who are the summoners?”
The question stopped him cold. She didn’t know? How could she not know? As history showed, Gideon hadn’t been a talkative sort, but he must’ve told her something, otherwise she couldn’t have used the seal on him. “The clans,” he said carefully.
“What are the clans?”
She didn’t know. Gideon probably taught her how to activate the seal, and that’s about it. A beginning of something new formed in his mind. He wasn’t exactly sure what this new thing was, or how exactly he would pull it off, but it was better than what he had now. Anything was better than what he had now.
The vine noose snapped at his head. He caught it, tossed the loop over the door handle, tightening it with a sharp jerk, and strode into the living room.
“You want information?”
“What’s in it for me?”
She crossed her arms on her chest. “You tried to murder me without any provocation on my part, and now you want to know what’s in it for you?”
He nodded. “Yeah.”
“Don’t you feel any sense of obligation here?”
She shook her head. “I promise not to set you on fire again, how’s that?”
He laughed. “You and what army?” He pulled the curtain aside and glanced out of the window. The closest thing, a large globular monstrosity, was about two hundred yards from the house. Halfway there. They weren’t about to try the hole again, and head-on assault was there only option. They didn’t have much time left. But he had to play it just right. Make her feel all of this is her idea. Make her ask for help. “You got a bathroom in this place?”
“Down the hall to your right.”
“I’m going to take a piss,” he told her. “While I’m gone, think about what you have to offer me. Oh, and if this house tries to murder me on the way to the can, you can forget asking me any questions.
Carefully Julia pulled the edge of the curtain aside and peered outside. The constant thumping was getting on her nerves. To the right, a mound of flesh flowed, changing shape, and solidified in what looked like a huge purple frog. It was close enough that if she had a tennis racket, she could’ve hit it with a ball. The frog sat still, round yellow eyes staring without any expression, like two dinner plates.
To the right a long thorny thicket grew with unbelievable speed, its twisted carmine branches wriggling snake-like along the ground.
The frog leaped straight up and hit an invisible wall fifteen feet above the ground. A pulse of bluish light rolled through the wall and dissipated.
“I’d get away from the window, if I were you.”
Julia let go off the curtain. The man sat in the lazy chair, still naked and apparently unconcerned with the fact that all his stuff was hanging out for her to see. Julia perched on the armrest of the couch, keeping her gaze firmly on his face, and forced her hands to relax. She had to keep it together. Getting a grip on the situation was the only path to survival, and she would survive this, damn it. Whether it was the reality or a deep psychotic break, complete with hallucinations, she would survive it. Even if it meant carrying on a conversation with a nude homicidal maniac.
“There is no door in the can,” he said.
“There are no doors anywhere in this house,” she told him. “Gideon liked to see me. All the time.” Funny how the priorities had changed, she thought. It had taken, what, five, six sessions of Hannah’s careful coaxing before she had admitted to this humiliation, and here she was, offering it up. Strangely, she didn’t feel any shame.
It took him a moment to digest it. “So did you go in front of him?”
“If I had to, yes. He liked to have a routine. He was very predictable that way. I learned to go when he was asleep.”
He stared at her. “So what is it you’re offering?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. I have no money on me. You can go through Gideon’s things, if you want.”
He grimaced. “No thanks.”
Well what do you know. Homicidal maniacs can get creeped out too.
His gaze lingered on her. “But we might work something out.” He raised his arms behind his head, stretching. His carved biceps bulged.
“Don’t even go there,” she warned. The boerboels growled.
“You sure?” He lowered his arms, flexing his chest, showing off the rock-hard pectorals.
He sighed. “Okay, how about the pie?”
“The apple pie I smelled on you earlier. Do you have any of it left?”
The absurdity of the situation was just too much. “No, the pie is back at home. I don’t live here. This is Gideon’s house. He willed it to me. I barely ever come here.”
“Well, can you make me a pie?”
“I am not baking you a pie. First, I have no stuff to make it with, second, you destroyed the kitchen, and third, you tried to kill me.”
He slumped forward. “Do you have anything at all to eat? I’m fucking starving.”
She thought about it. “There is a Larry’s sub in my car. I was going to eat it for dinner. You can have it.”
He raised his hand. “Sold! You can ask your questions as long as the sub lasts.”
When she returned with the sandwich, he had edged the curtain aside and was peering into the night through the gap.
“It’s a freak show out there,” he said. “Only five clans so far.”
She gave him the sub. He snatched it out of her hand and bit a huge chunk off of it. “Ask,” he said through the mouth full of food.
“Who are the clans?”
“Magic people.” He waved his fingers at her. “There are twelve clans: the eaters, the summoners, the animators, the melders, the feeders, the kruh and so on. You’ve met Corwus. He’s a summoner. I’m an eater. Gideon used to be an eater too.” He motioned to the window. “Look.”
She joined him, trying to stand as far away from him as possible and still look through the window. The cow colossus had fallen apart. Beyond the road, she saw dark shapes moving.
“The melders are bringing in a new herd. Probably planning to run it at the house and try to fuse them from the distance.” He laughed, choked on the sub, and coughed a few times.
“What so funny?”
“Gideon staggered a few wards that keep out the nonhuman into that field. They’re wasting their time. But that’s the melders for you. They fuse living tissue to make flesh golems. See that ugly frog thing with glowing eyes?”
The frog’s eyes were no longer yellow. They glowed with weak ruby radiance of dying coals.
“It belongs to Corwus. He is a summoner. He’ll get here, sooner or later. After that demon died, I thought he was done for, but either he bounced back quickly or wasn’t dumb enough to try the hole himself. The easiest thing would be to starve you out and he knows it, but since everybody else is trying to break through he doesn’t want to be left behind.”
To the left of the spider thing, a battering ram, made of a tree trunk equipped with a multitude of muscled legs, crashed against an invisible wall, feeling the night with a tired monotone of a worn-out drum. Thump. Thump. Thump.
“The animators,” the man supplied. “They infuse life into inanimate objects. Doesn’t last too long, but usually gets the job done. You see now? We are the clans.”
If this was a delusion, it has grown increasingly complicated. She’d read enough to know that paranoiacs were capable of constructing extremely logical theories in support of their persecution complex, but she was never diagnosed with paranoia, and even if she had, this was going beyond anything she could imagine herself creating. A vision flashed before her mind’s eye: herself, sitting slack-jawed in some padded room, her eyes vacant, with an IV in her arm, lost in her own private nightmare. If the drugs finally snapped her out, the shrinks would write books about it. She’d have her own chapter in DSM IV.
She became aware of his eyes, light, hazel-green, examining her with acute interest. His stare made her want to put a barrier between him and her. For a second she considered ducking behind the sofa and asking questions from there. No. There were limits even she would not cross.
“What do you want with me?” she said.
“We want to kill you and then eat you.”
He said it very matter-of-fact, as if it was the most ordinary thing. Julia felt lightheaded. That’s it, I’ve lost it. I’ve gone completely nuts. “Why?”
He stuffed a quarter of the sub into his mouth, chewed a couple of times, and gulped. The sandwich was almost gone. “We’re one trick ponies. I can eat a demon, and I can become what I ate, but I can’t summon anything to save my life. Corvus can pull a demon out of his ass–figuratively speaking– but can’t absorb one. It’s not in the cards. Animators give life, feeders suck it out. A lot of us cancel each other out. Gideon, he had everything. He could do everything. He was a freak of nature. Like a god.”
“I still don’t see it. What does Gideon’s power have to do with me?”
He rolled his eyes. “The power is passed through death and partaking of the flesh. If you kill someone and eat them at the right time, you can get their power. You must’ve killed Gideon, because now his power is in you.”
He grinned at her. “Trust me, it’s there. I can feel it. That’s how I found you.”
The image of Gideon with a bloody knife flashed before her. “No. Even if I’m not insane, even if all of this isn’t in my head, it still can’t be right. I killed Gideon because he tried to feed me a piece of himself. I never actually ingested any of him.”
He gave her a long look.
He nodded. “Oh yes. Jizm counts. Some people actually say it’s the most potent. I bet he loved to fuck you in the mouth. You probably ate enough of him over two years to inherit most of what he had.”
Julia sank onto the couch and put her hands over her face. She felt sick. She saw Gideon again, carving a piece off his thigh with a steak knife, holding the quivering, bloody piece of flesh out to her like an offering…
He kept going. “The transfer isn’t one hundred percent. It works most of the time, but it has to be done just right. Gideon was an insane fucktard, but he never did anything without a reason. He must’ve wanted to be really sure he’d pass it on to you, if he tried to actually feed you a piece of himself.”
The dizziness had spread from her head down into her chest in a heavy, painful rush. Julia felt cold. Her insides lurched. She struggled to contain the ache, to keep the nausea from rising. Her stomach clenched into a tight ball. Julia gagged and vomited on the floor.
Corvus sagged forward. His skin steamed, his blood so warm he imagined he could actually feel it burning the flexible tubes of his veins. The world swam out of focus, replaced by a wavy mirage.
The rush of ice water hit him as Marianne emptied another bucket over his head. “More,” he said and leaned back, letting the soothing chill spread over his skin.
The Morph sat in an amorphous blob midway to the house. Corvus released the shape, leaving himself only the minimal connection to the summoning, and the pliant flesh melted into a puddle.
Exhaustion washed over him. “Distance to the house?”
Tyrell raised the Vector night-vision binoculars to his eyes. “Ninety three meters.”
“Ten forty eight.”
The closer they got to the house, the tougher the wards became. Corvus eased himself onto the grass. He was nearly at his limit. Had Gideon been in the house, they would’ve never gotten even this far.
On the far left, the animators’ battering ram stopped moving. Stone was tired too.
At this rate, they wouldn’t penetrate the wards until well after midnight. More than enough time for the word to spread and more actors to join the play. The feeders had a colony near Jacksonville. A faint grimace touched Corvus’s face. The feeders would prove to be a problem.
Behind him, Il-Yun-Shin screamed. Her feet drummed the ground. Frothy spit poured from her mouth. Tyrell and Anastas clamped her down. Marianne checked the syringe and squirted another dose of sedative into Il-Yun-Shin’s arm. The small Korean woman quieted down.
His gaze strayed to the far right, where a small mound marked the entrance to the eater’s tunnel. That ward was a wonder. A truly monumental achievement, a work of a genius but warped mind. Like a true virtuoso, whose performance forever changed the audience, Gideon had possessed the power to alter. Anyone who came in contact with him or his work would never be the same. Corvus looked away from the tunnel. Il-Yun-Shin had touched Gideon’s masterpiece. She was a good summoner and he deeply regretted her loss.
The eater had broken through the ward, of that he was certain. Something had to have caused the loud crashes within the house. He calculated the odds of the eater loosing his mind. The odds were good. After all, Julia was still alive. Darco must’ve been dying when he penetrated into the house. Having made it through that ward was in itself phenomenal. He would’ve made an unpleasant adversary. Luckily the problem had solved itself.
The battering ram slowly staggered to its many feet. Stone had rested. Unfortunately for the animators, they were still three wards behind. Gideon’s defenses alternately kept out animate and inanimate. Both Stone and he were limited in their progress by having to batter down the spells that prevented them from passing.
On second thought…
Corvus motioned with his hand, and Marianne approached and leaned to him. “Tell Stone I have a proposition for him.”
“Make with the water!” Darco growled, holding a glass to a broken stub of a faucet. The kitchen had begun to repair itself. A circular hole gaped in the middle of the kitchen floor, its edges smooth and flowing, stretching like the lips of an open mouth. All around him thin wooden threads thrusting from the walls and ceiling grasped the shards and fragments of shattered cabinets and ceiling and dragged it to the hole. The wooden debris sank into it, accompanied by a disconcerting grinding noise.
A small trickle of water appeared from the faucet. Darco filled the glass. The idea sat in his head, trying to grow into a plan. The prudent thing to do was to scrap the whole thing. Just admit that he screwed up, walk away, and keep walking. Any pathetic flailing he did to “fix it” would just make things worse.
But she was right there. In the living room, on the couch. Less than twenty feet away. She pulled him the way a rich gold vein in a treacherous cliff pulled the color-hungry prospectors of Lous L’amour stories he liked to read. He just had to try one more time. He couldn’t let her go.
Trouble was he had no idea how he would get her out of the house. Or how he would get himself out for that matter.
He glanced toward the dining room. Not through that ward. Anything but that.
Darco negotiated the wreckage of the kitchen, glass in hand. For a chic whose love muffin got his jollies by watching her on the toilet, she did develop weak stomach rather quickly. You’d have to be a fruitcake to stay with Gideon. Maybe she loved the bastard. Maybe the puking was an act, a play for sympathy, and she was really a manipulative bitch.
The later was a definite possibility. Two hours ago he couldn’t wait to kill her and here he was, fetching drinks.
Or maybe she was just a girl, caught in the middle of something she didn’t understand… Darco flung the thought from him like a wet dog shook off the water. That way lay guilt and guilt was the last thing he needed right now.
He managed to negotiate the tangled labyrinth of self-repairing kitchen without spilling the water. Julia still sat on a couch, looking like she just heaved her stomach out: greenish skin, sweaty hairline, and teary eyes. The sour stench of vomit coated the inside of his nostrils and he had to swallow to keep from gagging.
She took the drink. The dogs hugged her legs, making distressed groans. Her hand shook and the glass clicked against her teeth.
“Come on, dying swan.” He steadied the glass with his hand. “Drink up.”
She took it, her cold fingers brushing his, and drained half the water in single gulp. “I’m not a dying swan.”
“Yeah.” Fruitcake. He needed to get the hell out of here.
The floor formed a hole under the vomit, the small puddle drained down, and the wood flowed closed above it. On one hand, the house tried to murder people; on the other hand, she’d never need a maid…
“You said you can’t use other clans’ powers.” The glass trembled slightly in Julia’s fingers. She clenched it.
“But all the clans are trying to break in an inherit Gideon’s power.”
“Let me use small words,” he said very slowly. “Gideon was special. Anybody can inherit his power. Everybody wants it for their clan. We’re not exactly on good terms with each other. If we weren’t so busy hiding, we’d be at each other’s throat. The clan that inherits Gideon’s powers will gain an edge. And it won’t be the eaters, thanks to your trinket. That’s why I’m leaving. We had a deal: I eat sandwich, you ask questions. Sandwich is gone and so am I. Get this contraption to open the door for me.”
He read a slight hesitation in the way she glanced to the male dog at her feet. “House, open the door for him.”
The wood flowed like wax and an outline of the doorway formed in the wall. The girl huddled on the couch, looking lost. She was still pretty. Pale, with her teeth chattering, and still pretty.
Darco took the door handle. Maybe the back door would be a better choice. No, Corvus was bound to have scouts around the house. His appearance would cause a stampede, and they might nuke him before they realized he was no longer a threat. Better to walk out in the open, let them see him.
A deep shuddering sound of a mass ward being torn apart rolled through the house. That was close. He lunged to the window. “Does this thing have a floodlight or something?”
She jumped off the couch and stood next to him. “I don’t know. House, shine some light out there.”
A narrow beam of light pierced the night, illuminating a knotted piece of wood. The light slid higher and caught a wriggling pinkish tentacle. The tentacle shivered. Its tip split into five meaty petals, opening and closing, like some monstrous flower.
Another beam joined the first, sliding up and down, revealing an enormous wooden trunk, too huge to be natural. Large holes peppered the wood and through the holes spilled the living tissue the color of raw meat. Bloated, glossy, it drooped, bulging with bubbles. The bubbles expanded, popped with a lip-smacking sound, and new bubbles took their place, quivering and slippery with fluid. Pale vesicles of fat hung between the muscles, gathered in bunches like grapes. A mass of long earthworm-like tentacles protruded from the top.
“Don’t start puking again.” He glanced at her. She looked like she just bit into a rotten lemon, but no vomit was in evidence.
Obeying some inaudible signal, the flesh withdrew into the trunk. The wooden holes flowed closed. The tree trunk toppled toward the house. For an instant it rested against the invisible wall, and then, with a sound like the tolling of a funeral bell, it ripped through it in a curtain of light and crashed to the ground. A new opening formed at the top and the flesh spilled out in a sickening flood. The tentacles whipped back, as the pink tissue spread wider and wider, grasped the trunk and pulled it forward.
“The summoners and animators are cooperating. Gideon’s spells can keep out the animate or the inanimate, but not both at once.” Smart. But let’s say they got here, then what? Only one Julia, and this race offered no silver medals.
The flesh licked the edges of the next wall and hesitated. “Probably smaller mass ward. It has to be lighter to get through.”
The mass quivered and split into five smaller copies of itself. The trunk fell apart, scattering into individual branches. Each being grasped the branches, coating them with its tissue. In unison, the five blobs touched the invisible wall and slivered through it. Only fifty yards to the house. They were practically at her door.
That was a hell of manipulation of inanimate, and at a great distance too. It had to be Stone. Better Stone than Corvus. The animators weren’t a bad bunch. If they got Julia, the Counsel might work something out…
Darco scowled. Eager for that second-best suck-up spot already. It should’ve been you, asshole, not Stone.
He snarled to himself, marched to the door, and threw it open. The night lay before him, the clumps of clan teams frozen into momentary immobility by his appearance.
Bullets buzzed by his ear, like a swarm of angry bees, biting chunks out of the doorframe. He dove aside, slapping the door closed. Solid thumps hammered the wood.
“Stop shooting, idiots!” Stone’s gruff voice barked.
“Don’t fire! I repeat, don’t fire!” A woman’s clipped voice carried above the noise of barking guns. “If you kill him before we get to his body, it’s over!”
The shots died.
“What happened?” Julia asked.
“They think I killed you. They think I’m the carrier, the new target. Every clansman out there is hot to slit my throat.”
A small smile curved Julia’s lips. “Welcome to my world.”
The phone rang.
Julia reached for the phone, but the man snatched it off the couch armrest, and pushed a speaker button. “That was dumb.”
Corvus’s clipped voice answered. “You will get no argument from me. None of my people are responsible. I assume you’re the carrier.”
“You assume wrong. The girl is alive. If you can hold your shit together, I’ll open the door and show her to you.”
Julia tensed. No you won’t. You’re not touching me.
“Why haven’t you killed her?”
The man said nothing.
“I think it’s a perfectly reasonable question under the circumstances,” Corvus said.
“A friendship seal.” The man’s grimace registered disgust. She wasn’t sure if it sprang from Corvus, her, or his own actions.
Corvus’s soft voice remained intimately warm. “Considering all the pain you’ve endured, I find it richly ironic.”
“I couldn’t care less. I just want to walk away. I get to leave in one piece, you get no interference. It’s a win-win.”
“How do I know that the girl is truly Julia? After all you are what you eat.”
“No eater can turn into a human. Besides, I’ll be standing next to her.”
Corvus fell silent. Moments stretched. “I believe you. But I simply can’t take the chance that you’re lying. With Gideon’s power set, you might be capable of replicating the girl. You know what’s at stake as well as I. If you try to leave the house, I’ll do everything in my power to gain custody of your life and body. It’s as simple as that.”
The man’s face turned flat, unreadable like a stone tablet. “Glad to know where we stand.”
“However, if you wanted to make an act of good will, which would go a long way to securing your freedom…”
“Bring us the girl.”
The man looked at her. She stiffened, caught in his gaze like a deer in the headlights, struck by the realization that if he decided to pick her up and carry her out, there was nothing she or the dogs could do to stop him.
The silence stretched. The man’s light eyes watched her.
“No,” he said. “You want her, you come and get her.”
“That is unfortu…”
The man pushed the disconnect button and tossed the phone on the couch.
Julia swallowed. Her mouth had gone dry. “Why?” she asked.
He moved to the window and edged the curtain aside. “It’s wrong. I might kill a woman if I have no choice, but I’m carrying one out like a pig to a butcher.”
Julia winced. The comparison hit home: like a pig, she would be killed and eaten.
“Grab the phone. He’s bound to call again. His ego is too big to let it go at that.”
As if answering his thoughts, the phone rang.
“Keep him talking,” the man said. “As long as he blabbers on, he won’t advance.” He disappeared into the kitchen.
The phone rang, insistent, demanding her attention.
She picked it up. “Yes?”
“I don’t know if you are real, but I can’t ignore the slight chance that the eater is telling the truth. If you are real, then I want you to know: it’s over.” The care in his voice, kind, concerned, relieved, was so intimate, so engaging, she felt as if the world had shrunk to the two of them. It was impossible to imagine that that voice meant anything but well. Suddenly she wanted to cry.
“The few remaining wards won’t delay us much longer. We will dismantle the house board by board, if necessarily. It will be a tedious, ugly affair. I wanted to give you this opportunity to come out. We can end it now. No more fear. No more waiting. No pain.”
It would be better this way. It would be over quickly. She swallowed, looked at the phone.
“I assure you, it will bring me no joy. I never wanted this. I never wanted you to suffer or to be afraid. Knowing that you’re cowering in some hole, terrified, probably injured, while we dig you out from under the wreck of the house would cause me great regret.”
“If you’re so concerned, walk away, asshole.” The man said suddenly over her shoulder.
“Would if it were that simple. And if I do walk away, the others will stay and they won’t be as kind. Come to me, Julia. All you have to do is step outside. I will do the rest.”
He waited for her answer. Her throat was so dry, it hurt. She tried to swallow but there wasn’t any saliva.
Julia stepped to the window and drew the curtain aside, not caring who or what saw her. Out there, beyond the weak spot of the house’s searchlight, monsters waited for her. Anger swelled in her, and the longer she looked, the hotter her rage burned. Julia clenched her teeth. Enough is enough. She owned herself. She didn’t belong to Gideon, Corvus, or the naked creep in the living room. They could kill her, but she would be damned if she would make it easy for them. I won’t walk out there like some sheep to a slaughter. I won’t do it! You can’t make me.
“No,” she said, her voice abrupt and angry. “You want me, you come and get me. I’ll fight you until I’m dead.”
She threw the phone against the wall. The man blinked at her.
“What? You wanted to do it, too.” She became aware of the stinging pain in her palms and unclenched her fists. Her nails had made red half-moon impressions in her skin. “If you’re going to leave, go now. They’re coming.”
The five creatures bulged in unison as some dark object protruded through their translucent muscle. Julia took a deep breath.
The man rammed her. His arm caught her waist – sending her breath whistling through her teeth – and swept her toward the hallway. Behind them the windows exploded, showering the carpet with glass. Something dark fell on the carpet, belching purple smoke. Acrid fumes scraped the inside of her nose raw. The smoke mushroomed, engulfing the room. Instantly she was blind. She gasped, coughed, stopped, lost in the purple haze, tears running down her face while she blundered in the hallway. Steel hard fingers grasped her wrist and pulled her onto the staircase. The doorway flowed shut, and then they were running up to the second floor, the dogs at their heels.
As they took the steps two at a time, the house shuddered. One by one the shutters slammed shut, the stairs melted behind them, and as they ducked into the bonus room, total darkness claimed the house.
Julia landed on the floor, coughing. The air inside her lungs turned into icy glass shards.
A single light bulb winked into life above them, illuminating the bare room, Gideon’s chair, and the blue sheet draped over the chest at the far wall.
They were trapped.
The man kicked the wreck of the chair again, splintering the wood into even smaller shards.
“Feeling better?” Julia asked, checking the dogs for scrapes. Both of them seemed no worse for wear.
“Shut the hell up.” He swiped the broken boards off the floor and hurled them against the wall. The boards thudded into the paneling. “Shit. Fuck, shit!”
“You probably think it’s terribly unfair,” she said.
He kicked the chair again.
“I know a little bit about unfair. When you’re eighteen and just out of highschool, and then an older guy comes up to you, and he’s beautiful like an angel. And you’re too stupid to think because he’s so beautiful and you think Prince fucking Charming is out there somewhere. You go home with him, but you pass out in the car, and when you come to, he has you strapped to the wall by your neck. And his house is alive. And you don’t know if you’re hallucinating or it’s for real.”
He stopped venting his rage on the chair and looked at her.
“And he explains to you in this calm, flat voice that you belong to him now, and you can never leave. When you’re eighteen and you’re naive, you think I’d rather die than let myself be raped. Well, try starving for four days. The vine would grow longer twice a day – you remember that, you piece of crap?”
She smashed her fist into the floor. The house creaked, cringing like a kicked dog. “It would grow longer so I could get to the bathroom and drink some water. In the end my stomach hurt so much, I was eating toilet paper in the bathroom, stuffing it into my mouth, and he just stood there and watched with this disconnected look on his face. Two years he kept me here. Two years of watching me, fucking me, owning me like I was some kind of doll. My brother died in a motorcycle wreck while I was in here.”
She was really angry now, her hands clenched into fists, nails digging into the flesh of her palms. “And finally I get rid of Gideon, and then there is a year and a half of therapy. I convince myself that I thought all the weirdness up, that I was delusional. I’m doing so well, I can actually leave the house and go to the store and not have a psychotic breakdown. My therapy sessions are down to one a week. I am finally free of him. And then you and your circus pop out of the woodwork and I find out you want to kill me because of something he did. Now that is not fair.”
They stared at each other in silence. The man looked shocked, as if the floor rose up and smacked him between the eyes. A wet slurping noise filtered through walls.
“You should get laid,” the man said suddenly. “Best therapy and comes cheap.”
The house creaked in outrage. The man leaped to his feet and back, just as sharp wooden spikes punctured the floor where he had sat.
“Quit it,” she said. She was angry with herself now. Look at me. I am a victim. Nice going.
Slowly the spikes sank back into the floor.
“This has not been my day.” The man rubbed his bare butt. “I’ve broken through a death ward, I’ve been shot, set on fire, hit with a frying pan, bitten, pummeled with a stick, and instead of getting a new set of powers, I’m now stuck with a fruitcake and her two crazy dogs in a house that keeps trying to murder me while the rest of the clans are trying to slit my throat.”
“I feel very sorry for you,” she said dryly.
“Somehow I don’t think you mean it.”
“Why did you save me?”
He shook his head. “I don’t know. Instinct.”
“Thanks,” she said. Why in the world I’m thanking him? He tried to kill me.
He strode to the wall and waved his arm. “You can pay me back by making a window.”
“Make him a window. Please.”
A narrow slit formed in the wall, as the wood crept apart with agonizing slowness, flowing like molasses.
“What’s wrong with it?” The man poked at the wall.
“I don’t know. Maybe it’s tired.” She picked herself off the floor. As soon as she took a step toward the wall, the wood parted, forming a perfect rectangular opening.
The man growled under his breath.
Outside a splash of light brightened the darkness. A circle of spinning gold and white flared. In the middle of the circle stood Corvus. In the nude.
“What is it with you people? Do you just like to run around naked?”
“He knows he’s about to overheat. Look down.”
She craned her neck and saw a wall of flickering light surrounding the house. Bands of dark purple spiraled from the ground, fading a few feet below the window, and reappearing above. Just before it the five globs of flesh sat inert.
“Can’t see it if you’re looking straight on. That’s called a shredder. Stone is going to tag it for him in a minute.”
The pile of wooden fragments arranged itself into a crude figure and leaned against the bands. The purple stripes shifted and spun, in bright spirals. The wooden puppet jerked. Sawdust flew from it.
“Here we go.” The man’s hand touched her shoulder. Suddenly she was aware of the fact that he stood right next to her, and he was naked.
Corvus spun in the circle. His hands struck the air. He leaned back, twisted, turned, moving with the grace of a martial artist, caught in a violent hypnotic dance.
The blobs united into a single mass. Strips of flesh burst from it, striking the ward in a dozen places.
Corvus danced faster. His hands stabbed the air like sword blades. The flesh strips flowed between the purple spires, shifting left and right with dazzling speed.
Corvus arched his back and thrust both hands forward with a pained scream. The last of the flesh streamed through the latticework of the bands. The summoner collapsed, the light ring around him dimmed, and just before the lights went out completely, someone dumped a bucket of water on him.
“Talented asshole,” the man said.
She stepped from the window bumping into him, realized what her butt had brushed against and nearly jumped aside. “Sorry.”
“No problem. I enjoyed it. Next time wiggle a little bit and I’ll be all set.”
“You pretty much say whatever pops into your head, don’t you?”
“Yep.” He pushed past her to the window. “We’ve got about ten minutes or so. It will take him that long to rest up.”
“And then we’re fucked. And not in a good way.”
She felt like beating her head against the wall. Trapped like a rat in a cage with no way out. She wished for a gun, a knife, anything, but the room was empty, save for a broken chair and Gideon’s wicker chest.
Gideon’s chest. Julia crossed the floor, jerked the blue fabric aside and knelt before the chest. She flipped the latch quickly, half-convinced it would shock her, and threw open the lid. A pair of jeans greeted her. Gideon’s had worn them when they first met. She hesitated for a second, unsure if she wanted to touch them. Screw wanted, she needed to move them so she could see inside the chest. Julia pulled the jeans from the chest and dropped them on the floor. There.
Her breathing evened out. No need to panic. She would find a way out of this trap. There had to be a way.
Under the jeans lay a fisherman’s sweater. She set it aside as well. She wasn’t sure why she had kept his things. At the time throwing them away seemed like an insurmountable task. It was much easier to put them into the chest and forget they existed.
“I could wear those if you want,” he said.
It took her a couple of seconds to realize he was talking about the clothes. “No. Not a good idea.”
“Ah. I get it. Gideon’s?”
He looked out the window, leaning on the edge with his hands. The muscles on his back stood out, stretching the dark stain of the bullet wound. There was something predatory in the way he surveyed the outside. He wasn’t thin – his frame was corded with muscle – but he didn’t carry any extra fat, and suddenly she recalled those feet gripping the floor, hard stomach flexing, powerful chest driving the carved arms, as his hands closed about her throat and squeezed. He looked like he was born to grab people and hurt them.
“Why don’t you just turn into a giant insect… thing and fly out of here? Escape before you get killed?”
“Nobody can summon, make, or turn into something that flies. It can’t be done. And even if I could, I’m too tired.” The look he gave her was almost feral. “Company.”
She got up. A high pitched whine cut through the silence and three hits thudded against the side of the house and rapid succession: boom, boom, boom. The wall shuddered from the impact. She dashed to the window.
Three pods protruded from the wall below. Dark, covered with black bristle, they sat against the white siding like some monstrous tulip bulbs. Julia rose on her toes, craning her neck to get a better look. The lower edge of the window streamed down another inch to lengthen her view.
The pods sprung open, like blossoming flowers. Eight hairy legs unfolded and gripped the wall with black sickle claws, revealing soft sacs of bodies and round heads, equipped with four eyes. The eyes glowed red, like dimming coals.
Julia’s breath caught in her throat.
The red eyes focused on her. The closest creature opened its mouth, unhinging the jaws like a snake – wide, wider – and clicked them closed with a dry snap.
She jerked, startled. Fear ran up her spine on icy legs: she could picture the jaws diving to bite her head off.
“So how did you nuke him?” the man asked.
Bloody piece of flesh, the gun heavy in her fingers… “I shot him. Four times, between the eyes.”
He laughed, at first low and then louder, like an amused wolf.
“What’s so funny?” She clenched her hands together to hide the trembling fingers.
The creatures tested the wall with clawed arachnid legs, and began crawling up, aiming for the window.
“You shot him! Gideon, the Fire Climber. The Divine One. I thought maybe a thousand volt electrocution, or you dropped a tree on him, or pushed him into molten lava, but no, you shot him. Twenty years we’ve been looking for him, and at the end he died with bullets in his brain. All that power, and the asshole went just like any of us.”
The nearest creature crawled high enough to disappear from her field of vision.
“Gideon wasn’t more than twenty five,” she murmured.
“He stopped aging awhile back.”
A screech echoed through the night. A creature thrust from the wall, impaled on a large wooden spike. It jerked, as if shocked with live wire, spidery legs kneading the empty air. The spike emerged from its back, pulling white clumps of entrails with it. The creature screeched again. Its body deflated, sagging. The spike dissolved and the thing fell to the ground. Two others followed.
“Wow,” the man said. “The house doesn’t like them almost as much as it hates me.”
Julia realized she had been holding her breath and exhaled. “Good house,” she said softly.
“Won’t work twice. Corvus will be smarter next time.”
She felt like throwing something at him.
Julia went back to the chest. It was empty except for a large square cookie tin depicting some old houses sandwiched between two black strips, like a shot from a movie in letterbox format. White letters on top said. “A Taste of Charleston. Cookie assortment.” She hooked the edges with her nails and pried the lid open.
A stack of papers greeted her, topped by a five-by-seven photograph. An unusual landscape: tall spires of natural rock, their sides scoured by scars and tinted deep green and brilliant carmine by moss, rising high above a deep canyon, drenched in greenery. The photograph was taken from the edge, and the breathtaking expanse of open air between the lens and the canyon’s floor nearly made her dizzy, yet it pulled her like a magnet.
The man knelt next to her and picked up the photograph, holding it gingerly by the edges.
“Where was this taken?” she wondered.
“Arizona. Chiricahua Mountains.”
He looked at the photograph, his face reflecting something akin to reverence. She left him to it, moving on to other papers. An old letter, scribbled in a strange language.
Another boom sent shivers through the walls. She forced herself to ignore the rising fear. “Can you read this?”
“No. Looks Scandinavian. Norwegian, maybe?”
Under the letter lay a small dried leaf with jagged edges. She removed it and as soon as she let go, the man’s fingers closed about the fragile stem. He sniffed the leaf, lost in thought.
Next came a small leather patch the color of parchment, with a tangled celtic knot etched on it in blue. She reached for it.
“I wouldn’t,” the man said. “You don’t know what kind of person was wearing that skin before Gideon took it off them.”
She pulled up the sleeve of her sweatshirt and nudged the skin aside. More letters, yellow with age, written in a dozen different languages. Her heart sank. She felt very tired, heavy, as if her shoulders became encased in cement. “A stack of old papers, a leaf, and some human skin. That’s it.”
“What are you hoping for? Spear and magic helmet?” The man sniffed the leaf again.
He shook his head. “We don’t make weapons. We are weapons.”
A staccato of hits hammered against the house. Julia picked herself off the floor. She had to look.
“You won’t like it,” he warned.
She approached the window, each step harder than the next and looked out. The hairy creatures were back, this time armored in hard chitin. She counted five, about the size of a doberman. They crawled along the wall, unconcerned with wooden spikes, which slid off their armor, failing to penetrate. As she watched, two of the creatures clasped the shutters of the living room window and strained to pull them open.
Oh God. It finally hit home. She would die here.
A hairy monstrous face shot into her view, blocking the window. Four pairs of red eyes glared at her, glowing like dim coals, sharp with icy intelligence.
She swiped the piece of the chair off the floor and jammed it right between the eyes with a guttural grunt. The creature screeched. The window snapped shut, swallowed by the wall, the piece of the chair protruding from it as if it was always there.
The light bulb blinked and went out. Total darkness claimed the room.
Julia’s exhaled, the sound of her own breathing suddenly too loud. To the left the dogs panted.
Dry clacking sounds came through the wall, the knocking of large claws on wood. Click, click, click.
The house groaned.
“I thought so,” the man said. Julia’s eyes had adjusted to the dark and she saw his silhouette blocking what little light came through the doorway. She scooped up Gideon’s things, not really caring what she touched, dropped them back into the chest, flipped the latch closed, and padded over to stand by the man.
A sheer drop greeted her. The staircase was gone.
“The house gutted itself to fortify the walls,” the man said.
“Once they break through, that’s it,” she said.
He put his hand around her shoulders. Julia stiffened. Two days ago she would’ve screamed and ran in panic. But a much greater fear had blotted out everything else, and his arm was warm, and she let him hold her for a moment, eager for the warmth and reassurance of not being alone. In that tiny instant, inexplicably she felt safer. And then the breaks kicked in. She stepped away, but not too far.
The board of the left wall splintered with a sharp crack
“Stay behind me,” he said. She crouched, scrounging for the pieces of the chair in the gloom. Her fingers closed about the round stump of a broken chair leg. Not heavy enough to bludgeon well, but at least the end was sharp. It would have to do.
The left wall burst in a jagged explosion of splinters. The first hairy creature lunged through the gap. The man thrust his hand into the bristled head. The beast’s misshapen skull folded on itself. The arachnid legs kicked, scissoring the air, trying to slice the man’s throat, but fell short, sucked into the beast’s collapsing gut. The monster’s body twisted in a corkscrew spiral and vanished into the man’s arm. He reeled like a boxer from a punch and shook his head. “Too tired.”
The second beast dived through the gap. As the man charged it, the wall on the right burst and hairy legs thrust through the new opening.
Julia ran at it.
The world slowed to a crawl. The monster’s legs twitched; their black claws, absurdly oversized for such narrow feet, dug into the floor. The muscles contracted the under black bristle, and the round head edged through the gap, the eyes glowing with radiant malevolence.
Julia swung her makeshift bat, gripping it with both hands, bringing it back behind her right shoulder like some stumpy spear.
The jaws opened, splitting the grotesque head in two.
She rammed the leg into the black mouth.
The jaws clamped shut, nearly ripping the weapon from her hands. The world sprung to normal speed.
Julia jerked the leg back.
The jaws clenched the wood like chitin pinchers. She ripped the bat back, throwing her whole weight into the move, but the jaws held tight. A splinter broke from the leg under the pressure and slid from under the monster’s left pincher. She grabbed the splinter, wrenched it free, and stabbed it deep into the cold red eye.
The monster screamed. The leg dropped to the ground. She grabbed it and swung wildly, raining blows onto the beast’s head. You’re not getting me, you bastard!
Something crunched with a dry snap. Bristly legs flailed, trying to grab her.
She hit it again and again, with icy determination.
The legs snapped one by one.
The skull caved in, crushed.
Bloody juice splattered, staining the chair leg.
The beast stopped twitching.
Julia straightened. Cold sweat slicked her back under the T-shirt.
The demonic thing lay broken on the floor. The sight filled her with an odd satisfaction. She looked at it for another second and turned around.
Two beasts protruded from the man’s arms, tearing him to pieces. She rushed and hammered the left creature. It didn’t reel back, and Julia realized the two things were being consumed. Inch by inch they sank into the man, their necks lopsided, the red drops of eyes still burning, the legs moving weakly. The man swayed. The two monsters slid deeper into his body, the right one gone almost completely, the left one reduced to its head and a bunch of legs squeezed together.
The man’s eyes glazed over. He staggered, his feet wide apart, as if dizzy, and toppled forward. She caught him.
“Almost got it,” he whispered over her shoulder.
The creature on her left reached for her with a stumpy leg. The beast made no sound but its eyes burned her, icy and aware. The black claw hooked her forearm. Pain pricked her skin.
The man’s body went rigid in her arms. The claw scraped her arm, drawing a red line along the muscle. The beast’s eyes watched her to the last, until they vanished. Only the legs remained now, twitching weakly. The man took a deep breath and the legs, too, were gone.
The man’s knees gave. She staggered under his dead weight and carefully knelt, lowering him onto the floor. His eyes opened wide. She wasn’t sure he saw her. “Just give me a minute,” he whispered.
A wet slurping noise came from behind. She whipped about. The dead demon on the floor quivered. A broken leg reached out, looking for its fragment. Corvus was trying to put the beast back together.
Oh no, you don’t.
Julia kicked the corpse, strewing the pieces around the floor and grabbed the crushed mess of the head. The jaws snapped at her weakly. She sighted the break in the wall, dropped the head, and kicked it. The head broke in two as it flew through the gap.
The three sections of the beast squirmed, trying to wriggle back together. “Hold them!” she ordered. With a creak, the floor beneath the demon wavered with a quicksand ripple and swallowed the two big chunks, but the third melted into pale pink goo and reformed itself into a pug-sized version of the demon. The little creature charged her. She stomped. It dodged to the left, hooked its claws into her shoe, and hung on, scraping her toes. Julia grasped the thing and tore it from her foot. The demon wriggled in her hand, cold and muscular like a snake. She hurled it through the break in the wall, grabbed the chair leg off the floor, and crouched, ready to leap should it dive back through.
The gap remained empty. Her chest heaved, the breath coming in ragged gasps.
We got it. I think we got it.
She turned and saw the fifth demon. It stood over the eater, the sickle claw poised on the man’s throat. The man lay absolutely still, his eyes closed. Behind the demon, in the gap, a twisted figure of sticks and branches tried to rearrange itself to maneuver through the hole.
The piece of wood slid a little in her sweaty fingers. Julia gripped it tighter and licked her lips.
The demon’s head flowed like melted wax and a different, vaguely human face solidified from the dark flesh. “It’s useless, Julia,” Corvus’s voice said, muffled and laced with static as if coming from a scratched-up vinyl record. The wood golem edged through the gap, half-way there. “You’re trapped. The eater has reached his limit. He can’t help you. We’ll just keep coming.”
He was right. They would keep coming. Eventually they would get her.
Julia wished for her powers. She strained, trying to summon something, trying to turn into something, trying to spit fire, anything.
A tiny point of red swelled where the tip of the demon’s black claw touched the man’s neck.
What good are the damn powers, if she could do nothing except command the stupid house?
The demon raised its left front leg and stepped over the eater. The floor before it wavered, as the house prepared a trap.
She couldn’t kill it on her own. Even with the house’s help, she couldn’t kill it on her own.
The face stretched, shifted under the creature’s skin. “Julia…”
“House, get us out of here!” she screamed.
A deep threatening rumble rose from below. The room quaked and shuddered like a ship in a storm. The stick golem vanished, swept out of the way.
Walls shook. The floor buckled under Julia’s feet. She flew through the air, rolled on the careening floor and crashed against a wall, hitting the boards with her shoulder. Gideon’s chest thudded next to her, knocking a hole in the boards, and stuck tight. She slid into the corner, smashing into the wall with her back. Her breath burst from her mouth in a startled gasp. Julia blinked, dazed by pain, and saw the man and demon slide down the nearly vertical floor. The eater’s eyes snapped open. The creature screeched.
A crack split the wall to the right of her. The man and demon tumbled toward it. The creature hit the gap with its legs spread wide, momentarily wedged. With a guttural snarl, the man kicked the demon, putting all of the momentum of his fall into his thrust.
“No!” Julia cried out, but it was too late. The demon’s legs snapped like matchsticks, the wall yawned, and both the eater and the beast hurtled out into the night.
Julia scrambled to her hand and knees and crawled along the wall toward the gap.
Around her the house moaned. Wood snapped somewhere. Dust rained from the narrow gaps in the floorboards now rising above her head.
Julia crawled around the chest. She was almost there.
The room keeled, reversing direction. She dove to the gap and caught the edge with her hands. Straining, she pulled herself to the hole and looked down.
The man dangled below, holding on to the tangle of electric cables drooping from the wall. Beneath him the grass was a long green blur.
She couldn’t pull him up. His dead weight would drag her down. “Don’t let go! I’ll be right back.”
“No rush,” he ground out.
She looked up, trying to find something long and solid to pass to him, a rope, the sheet that had hid the chest, anything. But the sheet was nowhere in sight, and the chest itself set wedged in the wall, unmovable.
Julia turned around and locked her fingers around the chest’s wooden legs. She held on tighter and eased her legs into the gap.
A steel vice clamped her left ankle. Another locked her right leg just above the knee. The sharp edges of the stubby chest legs cut into her fingers. She cried out.
The clamp on her ankle let go and shifted higher, the dead weight grinding her stomach against the ragged edge of the wall. With agonizing slowness, the man moved his grip to her thigh.
Her fingers had gone numb. She watched them open slowly, as if they didn’t belong to her.
A hand locked on the waist of her jeans and yanked her down. Her hands slipped, and Julia slid into the gap. A knee pinned her to the boards, halting her fall, and then the man was next to her, grasping her shirt and pulling her back in. She landed next to him, breathing hard. Her fingers went from white to deep red. She couldn’t feel them.
The floor righted itself, and they slid from the wall back to the floor, landing atop each other. “Thanks,” he said.
She rolled away, putting a couple of feet between them. “You’re welcome.”
The house rocked, the floor tilting up and down, not enough to be uncrossable but definitely shaky. Her fingers started to burn. She rolled to her hands and knees, then to her feet, and stumbling, crossed the room to the doorway. She clung to the frame and stuck her head out.
The floor of the ground story was gone. Beneath them she saw two massive bird-like legs. The legs pumped, the thick clawed toes gripped the ground, and the whole structure shook, propelled forward.
Julia turned back. The man crouched at the wall, looking into the gap on the opposite side.
“Are they chasing us?”
“No. The melders tried sending the golem, but we outran it. The rest are probably too tired. We bought ourselves some time.”
Julia slumped to the floor. Suddenly she was so tired, she couldn’t move a muscle. The eater walked away from the gap, landed next to her, and closed his eyes. “How did you know the house had legs?”
“I didn’t. I was just mad and scared.”
“I decided to help you,” he said. “I’ll take you to the Nexus.”
She looked at him. “Why?”
“I feel bad for trying to kill you.”
She lay back down. “I don’t believe you.”
“Fine.” He showed her his teeth, like a dog before a strike. “Look, you screwed my clan out of Gideon’s power. I would be damned if I let one of those other assholes out there grab it for themselves.”
The hero in shining armor, motivated by sticking it to “those other assholes. “This is for real,” she said. “It’s not in my head.”
“And what led you to that conclusion?”
“There is no way I could’ve thought you up.”
What he said made sense. If he couldn’t have the powers, nobody would have them. A selfish way to look at it, but it suited him more than guilt or some vague altruistic impulse. And she didn’t exactly have a lot of choices. “So what does this Nexus do?”
“It strips away people’s powers. Supposedly.”
There was always a catch. She sighed. “Supposedly?”
“Well, that’s what it supposed to do. Few people want to give up their powers. Almost never happens.” He opened his eyes and looked at her. “You do want to get rid of your powers?”
Powers which made her a target, which she couldn’t even use, thrust on her by a man she had hated? “Absolutely.”
“Then we have a common goal.” He reached over and offered her his hand. “Deal?”
“Deal. If you promise to find some clothes soon.” She shook his hand. His fingers clamped hers and she winced.
He let go. “Sorry.”
They lay in silence for a long minute.
“My name is Darco,” he said.
She tried to hold in the smirk.
“What?” he glared at her.
“You run around eating demons and turning into them, and your name is Darco?”
“It’s Croatian,” he said. “It means ‘gift’.”
“Sure it does.” She lost it and laughed and kept laughing until it hurt.
Corvus slumped to the ground. In the distance, the house crashed through the brush in a flurry of snapped branches, burst onto the road, veered to the left, dropping bits of lumber, and disappeared from view behind a copse of oaks. He felt a tinge of regret. They had been so close. A wave of fatigue rolled over him. He relaxed, letting the muscles loose. Oh, well. The game grew more interesting.
Marianne crouched by him. “Should we go after it?”
A pair of black Lamborghini LM00X roared down the road and swerved to a stop before the black leathered animators. Stone always had a flair for the dramatic. And the subtlety of a sledge hammer. Being raised on the steady diet of American steroids-and-flash, he couldn’t help it.
Doors popped open and the grim crew got in. Stone paused at the passenger door. Six-foot-three, Stone had the build of a heavy-weight boxer: massive shoulders, huge chest, tree-trunk legs. Stone must’ve outweighed him by at least fifty pounds, all of it hard, and he carried himself like he was wearing a prize belt. Contrary to the expectation suggested by his physique, Stone’s face was finely chiseled, with high cheekbones, a tall forehead, and wide, probing eyes of an intellectual, but the overall effect remained the same: Stone looked like a thug. A hard, cruel thug, made more dangerous by money and intellect. It was a carefully cultivated appearance, which Stone augmented by a menacing stare, which he now leveled in his direction. Corvus tried to look suitably frightened. After all, the American had worked so hard on his ability to intimidate. It would be impolite to disappoint him.
“Shall we pursue, sir?” Marianne said.
Stone, sufficiently reassured in his powers of menace, packed his frame into the SUV. The door slammed shut.
“No. I’m content to let our big scary vain friend chase them in his Transformer mobile.” They would never catch them. The house rode over six feet high. It leaped over the depressions in the ground and barreled through the brush that would leave a vehicle hopelessly stranded.
Corvus rose. His body protested the movement. As a summoner, he was trained to never divorce himself from the pain, because pushing too far meant could suddenly sever the link with the demon, quickly proving fatal. He had conditioned himself for endurance rather than strength, and now he welcomed the ache of sore muscles like a visit from an old annoying friend that had to be suffered but would eventually end.
He glanced to Tyrell. The black man checked the small display of the portable tracking system and nodded. Excellent.
Anastas offered him a neat stack of fresh clothes. “Get the cars, please,” he said, dressing. “We have a rendezvous we shouldn’t miss.”
Hannah Santiago guided her Jeep down a dark country road. The tall trees bordering the asphalt filled her with a slight claustrophobia, and she drove carefully, five miles under the speed limit. The radio, tuned to Romantic-98, spilled the gentle notes of “Green Sleeves”.
Julia’s phone call had greatly troubled her. She had felt the manic tension behind her nonchalant tone, like a guitar string stretched to its limit. Something had driven Julia back to the house, a feat which Hannah herself had failed to accomplish over the last six months. Julia was probably there now, shivering, unable to sleep. Hannah picked up the cell phone from the passenger seat and pushed redial. The long sound of unanswered rings echoed through the cabin. Hannah pushed the disconnect button and dropped the phone back onto the seat. Not good.
Julia was about to break, of that Hannah had absolutely no doubt. The question was, would it be more beneficial to talk her down from the edge of the cliff or to let her fall and pick herself up. Hannah had debated this question with herself. The need to help had won, and so she drove down the road toward the house, still not sure she was doing the proper thing.
Hannah had known that a confrontation would come. Despite Julia’s progress, her newly acquired coping skills were never adequately tested. She would—and apparently did—find herself in an unfavorable situation, and Hannah had done her best to prepare her for such an eventuality. Apparently not well enough, since Julia had panicked. Hannah had hoped for so much more. It was hard not to feel disappointment. She tried to push it away from herself, but it refused to leave her.
The darkness had grown oppressive, almost smothering. Hannah flicked on her brights. The road was deserted anyway; she hadn’t seen another vehicle for the last seven or eight minutes.
It didn’t matter. She would drive to the house, steady Julia, and tomorrow they would pick up the pieces and try again. She shook her head. The song ended, replaced by “Lady in Red.” She turned the volume up a little and looked back to the road.
A dark shape blocked her way. Hannah slammed on the breaks. The sudden deceleration wedged her into the seat. The shape was still there, huge, seven feet tall. Instinctively she jerked the wheel to the right, then back to the left, overcorrecting. The jeep veered from one shoulder to the other, skidded with a screech, and came to a stop amidst acrid stench of smoking tires.
Her heart thumped. She drew shallow rapid breaths. Prickling sensation spread through her hands.
The highway lay empty. She peered into the column of light made by Jeep’s brights, but saw nothing.
Oh my God, how stupid is that. She took a deep breath to steady herself. Her fingers trembled and she shook her hands, trying to get rid of the prickly feeling.
Something bumped against the side of the car. The Jeep careened, the two right wheels left the ground, hovered, and the vehicle settled back with a creak, released. Hannah froze. There was no logical explanation for the Jeep rising the way it did. Nobody could pick up the car with her in it, hold it, and drop it down.
A solid hit thudded through the passenger door. She jerked to the left and saw a huge toothed face behind the driver’s glass. Pale eyes glared at her from above cavernous mouth framed in scaly lips and armed with serrated fangs as long as her fingers. Petrified, Hannah stared at the teeth.
The right front tire popped with a noise of a gunshot. She tried to scream, she wanted to scream, but her voice stuck in her throat, nearly chocking her.
The rear tires exploded. The Jeep descended a couple of inches with a soft hiss.
The monster at her window turned. She followed its movement and saw people walking out of the darkness into the light. They wore black. Instinctually she knew that crying for help would be futile.
The man in front blinked against the glare of the lights and approached the door. Silently, the monster edged out of the way. The man bent and looked at her through the glass. He had a beautiful face and his eyes were very green.
He knocked on the window with his knuckles. Before she knew it, she had pushed the button and the window sank into the door.
“Good evening, Ms. Santiago,” he said, his British accent sharp like a paper’s edge.
She just stared, mute.
“My name is Corvus,” he said. “I’d like to ask you some questions about Julia.”
Behind him monstrous shapes congealed from the darkness. Hannah looked over his shoulder at the row of teeth and eyes and knew she would tell him anything he wanted to know.
More than anything else Darco wanted to sleep. The rocking motion of the house pulled him down, trying to lull him into happy drowsiness. Ten minutes, he thought. Just ten more minutes, and then I’ll get up. Ten minutes couldn’t possibly hurt.
In ten minutes, the idiot house could make a giant circle and bring them right to the clans. They had a minor advantage, since the cars couldn’t follow them cross-country but it would hardly last.
He forced himself to sit up and rolled to his feet, keeping hold on the wall. His stomach lurched.
Julia had curled on the floor, her hair spread over her face. He nudged her with his foot. “Up.”
She turned her head and looked at him.
“Somebody has to drive this thing and it won’t listen to me.”
She sat up slowly. “I think it’s pretty good at driving itself.”
The house leaped. There was a sharp jerk as it propelled itself into the air, followed by a sickly moment of weightlessness. Darco’s stomach went airborne in his gut, and crashed hard, squirting acid into his throat. Darco heard a wet splash and then the floor punched his feet. He flew, rolled and came to rest in a crouch. Julia hit the wall legs first and groaned.
The house shuddered, but did not move.
Darco swore and jumped out of the hole, catching a tangle of electric wires that drooped from the shattered wall to slow his fall. He landed in sludge, sinking up to his ankles into watery cold mud. Immediately a shiver ran along his skin. He made a mental note to find some damn clothes. Mid-spring in Georgia was warm, but not that warm.
It took a second for his eyes to adjust to the darkness.
The house sat on the edge of a lake. Through the broken ground floor window, Darco saw two massive chicken legs, one foot bent on the shore, the other submerged, probably caught in the mud.
“Stuck, aren’t you?”
The house creaked.
Before him a placid lake lay like a pool of black ink, pierced by a small island in the center. To the right a copse of trees rose, darkness etched against lighter darkness. To the left lay an open grassy space and beyond that a small corral. Darco inhaled the moist air deeper, tasting the scents on his tongue. Fish, algae, mud, fragrant hay, manure, horses. Stables.
A rumble of the approaching car made him duck behind the house. “Don’t move.”
The house settled. The rumble grew louder and a large pick-up truck rolled less than fifty feet from them, between the house and the stables. It climbed a narrow bridge across the lake and slid down the slope, its lights no longer visible.
Darco caught sight of Julia peering through the gap, waiting for him, and scrambled back up. “We got to go.”
“The house is stuck. We’re sitting ducks here.”
She crossed her arms on her breasts. He saw a long bloody gash on her left arm. When did that happen?
“I’m not leaving the house.”
God damn it. “Julia, be reasonable.”
“It saved us. I’m not abandoning it, stranded and alone.”
Of all the fruitcakes out there, why did he have to end up with this one? “The clans can’t be more than twenty minutes behind. We’re wasting time.”
She opened her mouth and he cut her off. “Look, the house thing wouldn’t have worked anyway. The nexus is in Texas. Over a thousand miles from here.”
“I’m not leaving.”
He hit his forehead with his palm. “Of course. What was I thinking? Let’s sit here in the mud and wait for people to come and kill you. Or better yet, let’s pry the house free and have it chicken-foot it on the highway all the way to Texas prairies. Nobody will ever notice!”
“You don’t have to sit here in the mud with me. You can leave.” She smiled at him. It made him incredibly angry. He considered stomping off dramatically, but he had a feeling she wouldn’t chase after him, begging him to come back.
He had known it was going to happen. When he was getting the water in the kitchen, he had a distinct feeling that she would be about as cooperative as an anchor around his neck. “I’ll carry you if I have to.”
“A naked mud-smeared lunatic carrying a screaming woman. Nobody will ever notice.”
He stared at her. “You would scream? Even though I’m trying to save your ass?”
He took a deep breath. Remember what’s at stake. “Fine. Do you have any bright ideas?”
“If we can get the house unstuck, we can trace this road until we see a road sign or some place I recognize.”
“Then we pick up the nearest railroad. Georgia is an eastern state, it’s full of railroads, and the traffic on the rails is a lot lighter than on the highway. We run the house along the railroad and if we hear a train approaching, we’ll guide it off to the side. Even if the people on the train notice something odd, they can’t exactly pull over to take a closer look.”
He remembered to close his mouth. On the surface, it didn’t look like a bad plan.
Julia looked at him. In the gloom, her big brown eyes seemed huge on her scratched-up face. “Will you help me?” she asked.
For some reason, the question caught him off guard, completely stripping away whatever ire had filled him a moment ago. He stared back at her, confused, not sure if he should rave some more or if he should just do what she asked. He decided on grumbling. “Fine, fine. Whatever.”
He leapt out of the hole. Julia followed, landing awkwardly in the mud. He tried the door, found it wedged tight, and went to the window to help Julia pick out the sharp slivers of glass, guarding the frame like teeth. In thirty seconds they were crouching next to the legs. Darco raised his head. The giant appendages grew from the center of the house, unifying and widening into a wooden column, from which the rest of the house radiated. The remnants of the first floor blocked most of the view, but he could see a network of thick wooden veins spreading over the underside of the floor.
He took hold of the stuck leg. It felt like polished wood under his fingers. Julia grabbed it from the other side, wedging her hands under the spur. “Lean back on three,” he ordered. “One, two, three.” He strained, but the house didn’t move.
Before he could find words vile enough to sufficiently express how tired he was of the house not listening to him, Julia gripped the leg and ordered, “Three.”
The house leaned back with a wooden groan. He clamped the foot and pulled, but his fingers slid. The leg remained wedged.
Of course. He had no reserves left, nothing that would sustain a form of the size he needed, unless he went true-shape. True-shapes were too dangerous to assume at the point of exhaustion. But he would only need it for a moment or two. He sighed. “Get out. I need space.”
She crawled through the window without argument and waited just beyond. Slipping and sliding on the mud, he moved to the spot where the foot vanished beneath the water. The dark water stung him with freezing cold. He splashed through, shivering, the sludge squishing between his toes. He picked the spot there the house hung low over the water, anchored himself, and morphed.
The change came with agonizing slowness. He felt the weight of the magic swelling his body cell by cell, but instead of an exhilarating rush, it came in a sluggish leaden tide. The very idea of movement brought pain. To let his chest rise felt like an insurmountable task. Sluggish, clumsy, stupid, he observed the birth of Hunger as if it happened to someone else. His muscles thickened; the flesh rolled off his back into a long heavy tail; thick scales sheathed his body. He wanted nothing more than to plunge into the lake, to bury himself into the soft watery sluice at the bottom, close his eyes, and sleep, weightless and quiet.
The wood of the house brushed against his ridged back.
Darco sank deeper into the familiar shape. His thoughts broke into small, manageable pieces: Grow. Bigger. Bigger.
The weight of the structure above settled on his flesh. He dropped to all fours and thrust, his webbed feet digging into the mud. The house refused to yield. A low alligator roar reverberated in his throat. He rammed the obstruction.
The house creaked and stumbled onto the shore, suddenly free. Pale circles swam before Darco’s eyes. He saw the outlines of the capillaries in his eyes.
The house teetered on the edge of the bank, like a drunken chicken. Darco’s ears caught the familiar rumble of an engine. A car was coming. A car that made a particular kind of noise, low and threatening like a growl.
He whirled and plunged into the water. The cold gloom cloaked him. His nostrils closed, as the thin fans of his gills thrust erect on his throat. He flexed his tail and sliced through the water. Behind him, the house slipped and plunged into the lake with a noise of a cannon blast.
He waited under the bank, hidden by the murky water. Reason fled him, replaced by instinct and simple, all-consuming need that permeated his entire body, vibrating in every cell. He was hungry.
The growl of the car grew louder. Meat approached.
He sank deeper and felt the cool water wash the sensitive ridge atop his head. The meat would stop in this spot, directly above him. He was sure of it with the certainty born from experience of countless hunts. All he had to do was wait. Oh, he knew how to wait. He had the patience of the primal swamp, from which he had crawled out eons ago.
The growl neared.
Here. It reached him.
The hum remained steady as the engine idled. Metal clicked on metal, as the door swung open. Not even his gills fluttered now, all of his being concentrated on the road above, where the meat lingered in its cage of metal.
A boot scraped the rough pavement. Come closer, meat. Come closer.
The door snapped closed, a fish leaping from the water and slapping the surface as it plunged back. He waited.
The meat took a step forward, unaware of the night shadow it cast upon the water. It raised its hand to its face. A loud squeak carried through the night.
“Tell Stone I found the house.”
The new voice confused him for a moment. He delayed, each moment stretching, spiced by the lure of the meat.
“Don’t see her.”
“Where are you?”
“By some lake on Cooper Parkway. Hold on, I’ll check the GPS.”
The meat turned away. Now!
He burst from the lake in an explosion of water and limbs. His jaw caught flesh. Skin burst under the shredder of his fangs, and hot delicious blood washed his mouth. The meat screamed a wordless, high-pitched howl of terror. His jaws crushed the meat’s limb until he felt the hardness of the bone. Locked on, he dug in his feet and retreated to the lake, dragging the meat with him into the water, where he could use his weight to roll it until it drowned.
The water splashed under his hind feet. Almost. He pulled the struggling meat. There would be no escape.
“Help me!” the meat screamed.
Behind the meat, the steel cage snarled. Wheels spun. The cage backed away and charged him. He had no place to go. To release the meat was unthinkable, and so he braced himself. The cage rammed his side. Pain shot through him, but the armor of scales held.
The cage refused to give up, pushing him, trying to force him away from the lake and back onto the road. He thrust his feet into the sludge to anchor himself to the bank. The cage spun its wheels, splattering mud, but didn’t move him. They struggled, locked, neither able to shift the other, while the meat shrieked and convulsed in his mouth.
Thin trails of acrid smoke emanated from the cage’s toothless mouth. He sensed it was on the verge of breaking. He would win. He was immovable. He was a rock.
His vision blurred. His legs trembled. Something was happening, something strange.
His jaw muscles, so mighty a moment ago, weakened. The meat slipped through them and scrambled away, leaving a slick trail of blood on the bank. He lunged after it, but his limbs lacked vigor. The meat was lost, lost… The world vanished in a dark fog. He shrunk and just before the last of him disappeared, Hunger felt the sharp tooth of fear.
From her hiding spot among the reeds, laying flat in the sludge, Julia watched the SUV ram the huge reptilian monster. The car’s grill connected with a meaty thud. Julia cringed. The monster’s tail lashed, but it was too fat and inflexible to reach the car. The vehicle pushed, trying to bulldoze the beast from its path to the lake.
In a moment Darco would get tired. He would deflate back to human just like he did back in her kitchen. And then the SUV would run him over.
The house still floundered in the lake. It would not help.
Julia struggled to her feet and splashed through the muddy water to the bank. She needed a weapon, a stick, a gun, something she could use to distract the driver or disable the car, but the bank offered nothing. She sprinted toward the car anyway.
The monster shuddered. Oh no.
Her foot snagged on a rock. She wrenched it from the mud, a good two-pound chunk, and ran at the car.
The reptilian creature sagged, deflating. The SUV reversed like a startled cat jumping aside and backed up onto the road. With a sickening fluidity, the speckled green and gold flesh twisted into a tight tornado and vanished, sucked into a point midway Darco’s back. The pale human form slumped in the muck.
The car hesitated, its twin beams of light stabbing at the gloom. The driver revved the engine. Once it sped to run him over, there wasn’t a thing she could do it about it.
“Hey!” Julia heaved the rock, aiming for the windshield. Right away she knew she threw too low. The rock crashed into the left headlight. Shattered glass rained.
The wheels turned. The car aimed at her. She saw the dark windshield, the empty wheel turning by itself, the grill gaped like a hungry mouth, and then it was on her and Julia leaped aside and rolled into the water. The car’s momentum carried it past her. Her heart hammering, she scrambled to her feet. The SUV rolled through the shallows, its wheels raising twin wings of water. For a second she hoped it would slide into the deep, but it crossed the edge of the lake and mashed through the reeds toward the bank.
Nobody drove the car. The realization penetrated her brain. The car was alive. Jesus.
She couldn’t do anything to the driver, because there wasn’t one. She had to disable the car.
Across the The SUV rolled onto the solid ground. Think. How do you kill a living car? Stuff something into the tail pipe?
The SUV slid around, turning.
No way in hell, she would never get close enough and if she did, it would just back over her. Maybe she could blind it. She glanced down. No rocks, only mud. Where were the eyes? Were the headlights its eyes? The house had no eyes but it saw somehow.
The SUV sped toward her.
She whirled around, scooped Darco under his arms, and pulled. His limp body might as well have been made of cement. She dropped him, grasped his leg instead and backed into the lake. Her fingers slipped off his wet skin. The body refused to shift, as if it had grown roots into the bank. She heard whimpering and realized it was her own.
The roar of the motor blocked everything else. Nearly blinded by the single beam of the remaining headlight, Julia pulled. The body slid a little.
The SUV skidded, swiping on the slick sludge. The skid bought her another second. She bent her knees, clutched the leg tight, and straightened with a jerk, throwing all her weight into it. The body gave and she landed on her back in the water. The vehicle rolled past them, braked with a squeal, reversed…
She grabbed Darco by his hair and pulled, pushing off the mud bottom into the lake. The water had grown viscous like molasses and Darco was so heavy. She treaded, but just not fast enough, her mind so much faster than her body. The SUV barreled on them, close, too close. She kicked with ligament-wrenching effort, throwing them backward once again. The SUV cannoned past, so close she could’ve touched it. The splatter from the wheels drenched her face.
Julia kicked, strong underwater kicks that barely raised a splash, propelling her and Darco back a few more feet. The car stopped, turned around in a whirl of water, and faced them. Julia sunk her legs, but her feet didn’t find the bottom. Good enough.
She kicked with desperate frenzy, frothing a lot of foam, making a great show, but moving very little. She had to appear within reach.
The car’s light beam sighted her. She splashed harder.
The SUV revved its motor and charged. She watched it come head on. Her heart thudded. Her breath turned to concrete in her lungs. She could do nothing but watch it barrel upon them. Fifteen feet. Twelve. Ten.
The engine sputtered. The vehicle made an odd, almost surprised noise, and choked. Its light died. The grill hit them, sending pain down her back, but buoyant, they bounced off, relatively unharmed. Julia kicked off the grill with both legs and swam, dragging Darco to shore, as the car slowly sank into the water amidst the air bubbles.
She pulled him onto the bank. Her legs had turned to wet cotton, and she slumped next to him, checking for heartbeat with her ear on his chest. She heard it, steady, even, as if he was asleep on a couch in a warm room.
She crawled aside and sat, wide-eyed. Her legs trembled, then her arms. She realized she was freezing-cold.
A small noise behind her made her turn. The man who’d struggled with Darco, was staring at her from three feet away. His left leg trouser leg was torn to shreds and through the gaps, she saw the bloody slickness of the bone in the mushy crimson of the wound. He would bleed to death.
“Take off your belt,” she said. “I’ll use it as a tourniquet. We have to stop your bleeding.”
He lunged for her, pinning her down with his bulk. His fingers clawed at her breasts, trying to get to her throat. She threw her arms up to protect her face. He clenched her forearms, growling like an animal.
“Why?” she gasped.
“I kill you, I get my leg back.”
He reared and punched her in the face with his fist. Pain slammed her. She tasted blood. His hand closed about her throat, clenching it in a steel-hard vice. Furious, she dug the fingers of her left hand into his bloody thigh. He howled. She grasped the bone and scratched, ripping at the muscle. He rolled off of her, screaming. She jumped to her feet and kicked him, once, twice, sinking her foot into his gut.
A darkness fell upon her. She glanced up, saw the outline of a great foot against the blackness. There was no time to move, so she just crouched and tucked in her head. The house stomped on her attacker. She heard the bones crunch with a wicked crackling.
The house stepped aside. The man lay in the outline of the tyrannosaurus-sized foot print. His eyes stared unseeing at the sky. Thick, almost black streak of blood spilled from the corner of his mouth. His chest was a ruined mess of bloody rib shards puncturing the flesh.
The house scraped its foot against the ground, raised it tentatively, and scraped some more. She hugged herself. “What took you so long?”
The foot print sunk into the mud, twelve feet long, almost a foot deep. Its edges already began to blur, but the sharp impressions of foot-long claws at the ends of three toes were still plainly visible. As Stone studied it, a feeling of deep unease settled upon him; he was at once frightened, worried, and mystified, like a man suddenly catching a glimpse of a Sasquatch in the fast-food joint’s parking lot.
Long ago he had tested his world and divided it into things which could be done and things which could not be done. Looking at this footprint, he realized he had been wrong, and it shook the foundations on which he had based his understanding. It was impossible. On impulse, he passed his hand over the print, almost expecting its otherworldly essence to seep into his hand by osmosis.
The enormity of the print’s existence made the broken body in its middle seem like an afterthought, a gruesome but inconsequential side-effect.
Lincoln approached slowly, from the side, and crouched by him. Short, muscled like a put bull, Lincoln rarely showed emotion but now his lined face was mournful. “We found the Jeep.”
“Drowned. The air intake flooded and—” Lincoln shook his head, “—it’s gone.”
They looked at the print together.
“Tell me, how do you infuse a two-story house so it stays alive for two years after your death?” Stone said softly.
Lincoln shook his head. “I don’t know. Maybe the Keeper is keeping it alive.”
Stone looked at him. “I saw her,” he said. “I was there. She was beating on Corvus’s bugs with a broken chair. Whatever she has is dormant.” He shrugged his massive shoulders. They both knew what was left unspoken: they had to reinfuse the cars every month to keep them running. He looked to his uncle. “Tell me how can this exist?”
Lincoln swallowed. His eyebrows kneaded together, his dark skin showing a hint of flush. “I don’t know,” he admitted, his voice a hoarse whisper. “It’s like bench-pressing eight hundred pounds. It can’t be done.”
They sat in silence at the edge of the print that should not have existed.
“He might have infused it board by board before it was ever built,” Lincoln said.
“But how did he make it into whole?” Stone rose, walked a couple of feet to the ruined body, and crouched again, looking at the blood-stained, shredded mess that used to be Isaah’s hands. Lincoln followed.
“Look at his hands. What do you see?”
“Scratches.” Lincoln frowned.
“There is only one way a man would suffer his hands to be clawed bloody – if he’s got hold of something too important to let go. The fool had his hands around her throat.” Stone paused, letting the significance sink in.
Lincoln stared at Isaah’s puffy hands, crisscrossed by gauges. “She couldn’t call for help.”
Stone stood up and nodded toward the lake, to the receding line of triangular prints. “And the house came anyway. It ran to help her and it stomped on him. On its own.”
“Smart.” Lincoln said softly.
As they stood side by side, contemplating the tracks, the eerie feeling of unease returned full force. Had Stone been alone, he would’ve shivered.
On the shore his men were rigging a cable to pull the dead car out. “Leave it be,” he called and stalked off, back to the Lamborghini.
Lincoln followed at his heels. He rubbed his chin, frowned, rubbed some more. “A shame to kill something like that.”
A shame. The house was a pinnacle of what they could achieve as a clan. Proof of the new heights. The new inspiration. They had been stagnant for so long. If they could possess the house…
Stone’s back tensed. His jaw set, he got into the SUV. Around him, his crew packed the equipment. He’d sacrifice every single one of them for the prize. If need required, he would become his clan’s Ugo Villegas.
Lincoln sat next to him.
“It’s got to be done,” Stone said.
Darco awoke instantly. His eyes snapped open, registering the familiar wooden ceiling steeped in gloom. The rhythm of his breathing did not change. He made no sound, as he turned his head a quarter inch, looking for Julia.
She crouched by the gap in the wall, holding a bat, focused on something beyond his field of vision. The air smelled of Irish Spring and lingering, slightly bitter stench of algae and pond scum.
He sat up, noticing that bottom half of him was snuggly packaged into a sleeping bag, pulled his legs free, padded over to her, crouched and scraped the floor with his fingertips to keep from startling her. She whirled anyway, clutching the bat. He held her belligerent stare until the recognition dawned on her. Julia lowered the bat. Big black circles under the eyes and a red welt on the left side of her jaw – someone had punched her in the mouth. The blow glanced off to the side or she would be spitting blood stubs of her teeth. Her neck was bruised too. Apparently it didn’t go well after he passed out.
She pointed to the gap. They sat within a spring forest, thin pines with an occasional oak dripping tinsel of Spanish moss. The shadowy ground, thick with several years of pine needle straw, lay dappled with occasional light spots. The air moved freely between the trunks, as if the pines were a forest of masts, thrusting their way from the decks of the ships upon the open sea.
Nothing out of the ordinary.
Darco inhaled the air, trying to separate the forest scents from the rank of the drowned house. A raccoon had sniffed around the house – the slightly honeyed odor stained the grass near the hole. The dry aroma of pine overwhelmed almost everything else. He stretched his neck, lifting his face, trying to catch the slighter traces riding on the draft.
The rush of pine and then an amalgam of scents, the musk of a cat, the stink of a dog’s sticky fur, another cat, what the hell…
Something grey moved between the pine trunks on far left. He leaned forward, tracking the movement. The shape slunk to the right, obscured by the grey shadows of the tree trunks. About two feet tall. It looked wrong, the line of its body jagged, as if someone had screwed with the basic mammal four-legs-one-head set.
Darco leaned further. His fingers touched the floor. It would only take a second to shape into Wolf and take a closer look.
The shape flickered in and out of sight, elusive, taunting him. The flesh between his shoulder blades itched, eager to spit the fur onto his back. His right foot caught the ground. He could launch into the sprint in a fraction of a second.
The shape peeked from behind an old oak. Darco took a deep breath. His leg muscles tensed.
The shape meandered by roots, shrugged the remnants of the shadows cloaking it, and stepped into the open. It had a lean canine body of a mongrel, with a typical color of a German shepherd and the build of a small hound. Midway up, its forequarters thickened in uneven bulges, stained with blood-crusted patches of reddish and grey fur. The artificially widened shoulders spread to support two cat heads, one on each side of the natural canine muzzle. The cat heads dropped at the forty five degree angles, the eyes lolling weakly, their fangs exposed. The whole set-up resembled a classic Russian troika with a revolting twist.
A mote. Darco dropped out of crouch and sat on the floor. Some small part of him was a bit disappointed at being cheated out of the hunt.
The mote sniffed the air with its dog nose and proceeded to make a small circle around the oak. Its feline heads swiveled on their necks, staring at nothing with glazed over eyes.
“How long …” he began softly. Julia clamped her hand over his mouth. He let her keep it there a few seconds more than necessary, and took it off. “It’s pretty much deaf and stupid,” he said, keeping his voice low just in case. “It’s just a mote. Melders make them to scout. They look demented, but they’re pretty much useless. We’re only in trouble if it sees us or if we kill it. Even then, we’d have to stand right in front of it for it to notice us and once we nuked it, we’d have some time to get away.”
“How long have you been sitting here, watching it?”
Julia put down her bat and hugged her knees. “I don’t know. A couple of hours. It keeps circling around.”
“Sounds like nobody is driving it.” He thought of her sitting there, clutching her bat for two hours, terrified the mote might wander over her way. A small instinct of self-preservation warned him there would be hell to pay if he laughed, but he couldn’t help it. The laugh bubbled up and he dissolved in silent chuckles.
She gave him a look sharp enough to draw blood and stalked off into the depth of the room.
It took him a good two minutes to get himself under control and then he followed her to the corner, where she’d made a nest out of the sleeping bag. He crouched by her and spoke in a hushed tone. “Julia? Don’t be mad.”
She flipped him off.
“Oh, I wish you would.” That earned him another stare of murder. She looked damn ridiculous with her hair tangled up and the basilisk glare. He remembered he had to be halfway civil to her, so she wouldn’t run off, so he squished the urge to laugh more, and whispered. “Okay, so it wasn’t fair to laugh. Here you can hit me on the arm. A free shot and we’ll be even.”
“I don’t want to hit your arm, you idiot! I should’ve let you get run over. Leave me the hell alone.”
“You know you want to punch me.”
She turned her back to him and rolled into a ball. She looked tiny on the sleeping bag. Something stirred in him, guilt maybe. He quashed it and sat by her. “Oh come on. At least tell me where the stuff came from.”
She ignored him.
“The bags are nice,” he said. “The sweatpants, too.” He decided that mentioning he just now noticed he was wearing the sweatpants would completely cramp his style. “Say, you didn’t get any food…”
The small duffel bag would’ve hit him in the head, but he caught it and inch from his face. He pulled the zipper open and extracted a ziploc bag full of hamburgers, still in their Wendy’s wrappers. For a second Darco’s brain refused to digest the puzzling fact of the hamburgers’ existence, and then his mouth watered. He pulled one out, ripped the paper off and took a bite. The burger melted in his mouth. He had never tasted anything quite so good.
Three burgers later, he was finally able to form coherent thoughts again. “Awesome.”
The seething ball of pissiness that was Julia refused to reply. Darco scratched his head. The last thing he remembered involved kissing the mud and darkness. How did he end up being dressed in a warm sleeping bag? Curiosity was killing him.
“You want me to get rid of that mote for you?” He got cheated out of Wolf anyway.
She stirred a little.
He pulled off his sweatpants and discovered he had no underwear. Stuffing him into the underpants must’ve been beyond her. He shook himself to loosen the muscles and dropped to all fours. He slid into the shape in a fraction of a breath, shook his shaggy black fur, and bounded out of the house in an explosion of barks.
The mote froze. Its canine mouth split open, its eyes bewildered. The left cat head hissed weakly.
Darco danced around the mote, growling and lathering up spit. The mote hissed again, this time with its right head, but stayed put. Too dumb to get the point. Darco lunged. His fangs snapped a few hairs from the mote’s dog throat. Sharp stench of urine lanced Darco’s nostrils. The mote tucked its tail between its legs and took off with a high-pitched whine.
Darco chased it for a few seconds, more for fun than real need, returned to the house, and thoroughly marked his territory by pissing on every tree until he was spent. The wind brought the scent of a rabbit. Darco inhaled it. A good chase would feel nice right about now. Work the kinks out. But he had Julia to protect. He scratched the ground a bit to seal the territorial brand and, business finished, padded paw over paw into the house. Julia watched him through the gap. He nudged her arm with his nose.
He nudged again and sat on his haunches, panting.
“I still know it’s you.”
He flopped on the ground, scooted like a big furry snake, rolled over, and kicked the air with his paws.
She rolled her eyes.
He wriggled a little closer.
“I’m not scratching your gut, so you might as well do your shape-changing thing.”
He let go off the shape. “I can’t believe you don’t like my dog.”
“That wasn’t a dog. That was the hound of Baskervilles.”
He shrugged. “Chicks dig the dog.”
“Yep. If I could do a white poodle, I’d be all set.”
“You could never do a poodle.”
He glanced at her. “Why? Think too big?”
“Not enough brains.”
“Ha! Well, brainy one, did you get me some underwear?”
She pointed to the corner. “Duffel bag.”
He went to dig in the bag. “Hanes, yeah?”
Clad in Hanes, T-shirt and sweatpants, he fetched his sleeping bag and lay down by her. “You never told me where the stuff came from. I passed out, and what happened then?”
“The man you mauled had a car. It was alive. It tried to run us over. I dragged you into the lake. It followed us and drowned.