I knelt by the spot where the intruder had veered off from the inn’s boundary. Four triangular indentations marked the hard soil –claw marks. The trespasser had sunk its claws into the ground as it turned on its foot and dashed off. I had just missed it.
In front of me the street lay silent, the trees mere charcoal shadows rustling softly in the wind like sheets of paper sliding against each other. The subdivision was hardly rambunctious, and even on Friday nights, the activity died down by midnight. It was close to one o’clock.
I breathed in quietly, listening, watching. No hint of movement anywhere. No stray noises. I’d taken three precious seconds to throw on some shorts and a thicker T-shirt and snap a rubber band around my hair, and now the thing with claws was gone.
I raised my hand, focused my power on the tips of my fingers, and then touched the indentation. A pale yellow trail ignited on the ground. It faded almost instantly, but not before I registered its direction. It was heading down the street, deeper into the subdivision.
Chasing it would mean leaving the inn’s grounds, where I was at my strongest. I should stay out of it. I should turn around and go back to bed. It was none of my business.
If it killed a child, I wouldn’t be able to live with myself. I’d made my decision, for better or worse. Now wasn’t the time to have doubts.
I needed a weapon. Something with reach. I concentrated. The broom flowed in my hand, the “plastic” of its handle melting into dark metal shot through with hairline fractures of glowing, brilliant blue. A razor-sharp blade formed on one end while the shaft of the broom elongated to seven feet. An old line from an Italian martial-arts manual popped into my head: the longer the spear, the less deceiving it is. Seven feet would do.
The last of the blue cracks melted. The spear, now the dark gray of Teflon, felt comforting in my hand. I took off down the road, keeping to the shadows. The glowing trail faded. I would’ve loved to rekindle it, but I’d left the inn’s grounds and my bag of fun tricks had shrunk.
Avalon Subdivision had been built by a drunkard who couldn’t draw a straight line if his life had depended on it. The streets didn’t just turn, they curved and looped back on themselves as if they were the whorls of a giant’s thumbprint. Camelot Road was the subdivision’s main street, and even it bent like a snake slithering through the forest of houses. I passed by the side streets, briefly glancing down each one. Gawain Street, Igraine Road, Merlin Circle… The streets lay empty. Here and there lights were still on, but most of the residents had gone to bed.
A floodlight shone bright in the distance. Probably motion triggered. Someone or something was moving outside.
Keep going or check it out? If it was nothing, it would cost me time. But if it was something, I could stop looking.
I crossed the street to the opposite side and ran, hiding in the shadows of mature oaks. It would only take a minute.
A house sat in the shadow of a poplar tree. Gray Texas limestone, two stories, bay window, two-car garage –pretty standard fare for the subdivision. A car sat in the driveway, a Honda Odyssey, both passenger doors and the hatch open, showing white plastic bags in the cargo area, probably from a twenty-four-hour grocery store. The familiar shape of a child’s car seat curved in the back. The door of the house stood ajar.
A couple coming home from a trip, maybe? They must’ve stopped at the store on the way so they wouldn’t have to go out tomorrow, come home, parked, and taken their child inside. It was probably nothing, but I wouldn’t know until I took a closer look.
The house directly across the street from the limestone offered no cover, but the property right before it had a nice thick hedge. I snuck over to the hedge and crouched to the side of it, resting my spear in the grass.
A car started somewhere deeper in the subdivision and drove away, the sound of its engine fading. Silence claimed the night. The moon shone bright, a glowing silver coin spilling gauzy veils of light onto thin shreds of clouds. Here and there stars pierced the darkness. To the left, a plane left a pale trail across the sky. The air smelled fresh, the night breeze pleasantly cool on my skin.
A shadow dashed across the lit-up driveway, swiped a grocery bag from the back of the Odyssey, and sprinted across the yard to the side of the house before sinking into the night shadows.
Got you, you creepy bastard. If I had blinked, I would’ve missed it. As it was, I got a vague impression of something simian and large, covered with patchy fur.
The thing on the side of the house ripped the bag apart, tossing the pieces out onto the moonlit lawn. Only its forepaws were visible –ratlike, larger than human hands, with bony hairless fingers armed with sharp black claws. Chunks of a yellow Styrofoam tray followed the bag, and the creature tore into its contents. A crunching noise announced bird bones being crushed. Lovely.
“Baby, did you bring in the groceries?” A woman asked from inside the house.
A muffled male voice answered.
Stay in the house. Stay in the nice safe house.
A woman appeared in the doorway. She was in her early thirties and looked tired, her shoulder-length brown hair messy, her T-shirt rumpled.
The creature dropped its stolen meat.
Stay in the house.
The woman crossed the threshold and headed for the car. The creature melted into the shadows. Either it hid because it was scared or because it was about to strike.
The woman checked the trunk, picked up the lone grocery bag, looked into it and frowned. “Malcolm? Did you take the chicken in?”
The monster was nowhere in sight.
Take your bag and go inside.
The woman leaned into the rear passenger door, talking to herself. “I could’ve sworn… losing my mind.”
A flicker of movement on the side of the house, high, about fifteen feet off the ground. I tensed, ready to sprint.
The beast scuttled into the light, crawling along the sheer wall fifteen feet up, like some giant monstrous gecko. It was at least five feet long, maybe five and a half. Spotted black and blue fur grew in patches along its spine; the rest of it was covered with pinkish wrinkled skin. Its skull was almost horselike, if horses could be carnivores. Long jaws, too large for the head, protruded forward, making the wide, flat nose seem ridiculously small. A forest of sharp bloodred fangs sprouted from the jaws, barely hidden by white lips. But the eyes, the eyes were worst of all. Small and sunken deep into the skull, they burned with malevolent intelligence.
The creature gripped the brick wall with oversized digits and dashed across, toward the car, agile like a monkey, too fast for a spear throw. A moment later and it jumped off the wall, clearing the car in one single, powerful lunge, and landed behind the Honda.
Damn it. I hefted my spear and ran.
The woman straightened.
The beast leaned forward, muscles on its four limbs tensing. It looked enormous now. The biggest Great Dane I’d ever seen was four and a half feet long. This beast had a full foot on it.
The creature opened its mouth and growled. A deep, guttural snarl rippled through the night. The hairs on the back of my neck rose. It didn’t sound like a dog. It sounded like something dangerous and vicious.
The woman froze.
Don’t run, I willed, moving toward them. Whatever you do, don’t run. If you run, it will chase and kill you.
The woman took one tiny step toward the door.
The creature slinked behind her and murmured something in a strange language full of whispers and moaning, as if a dozen people lamented and mumbled at once.
“Oh Jesus,” the woman whimpered and took another baby step toward the door.
The beast let out a high-pitched cackle. I was almost there.
The woman dashed into the house. The beast chased her. The door slammed shut and the creature rammed it head-on. The door shuddered with a loud thud.
Oh no, you don’t. I flipped the spear and thrust. “Put your weight into it, darling!” Mom’s voice said from my memories. I sank my entire momentum into the spear. The point of the spearhead sliced into the pink, wrinkled flesh, right between the creature’s ribs.
The beast howled. White blood bubbled around the wound.
I leaned into the spear and turned, wrenching the impaled creature away from the door and pushing it onto the grass. The monster clawed the lawn, my spear stuck in its ribs like a harpoon. I lunged down, pinning it, and pushed, putting every ounce of strength into the spear, forcing the beast across the grass and into the darkness on the side of the house.
My heart pounded at about a million beats per minute.
The revolting thing screeched, squirming on the end of the spear. If it was human, it would be dead. I should’ve hit its heart, but it showed no signs of dying. I had to finish it and quickly, before the entire subdivision noticed its screaming and came outside to investigate. I had no clue what its vital organs were or where they were located.
If I couldn’t aim for precision, I’d have to go for massive trauma. I freed the spear with a sharp tug. The beast flipped on its feet, impossibly fast, and struck, its long claws like sickles. I shied to the side. Sharp talons raked my left side, searing my ribs with hot pain. I bit on a scream and thrust, aiming for its gut. The beast knocked my spear aside with its shoulder. I whipped the weapon around and drove the butt of the spear into its throat, pinning it to the side of the house. The beast gurgled, scraping at the air with its claws, trying to rend me to pieces. Now, while it was struggling to breathe, or never. I flipped the spear and drove it into the shrunken chest.
Bone crunched. I freed the spear and stabbed it in, again and again, as fast as I could. Stable, powerful thrusts. Another crunch. White blood leaked from the gashes. Sweat drenched my face. The spear felt too heavy.
Another thrust, another, another…
Thick white pus tinted with clumps of pink spilled through the wounds.
The beast sagged. Its horrible clawed hands rose one final time and then fell, limp.
I stabbed it again, just to be sure. My wound burned like someone was sinking red-hot needles into my side. I doubled over. Ow. Ow, ow, ow.
As much as I wanted to dramatically collapse in pain, now was neither the time nor the place. I had to get that cursed thing out of here before somebody saw me.
I surveyed the monster. It was a skinny beast, but still five feet tall. Had to be at least a hundred pounds. Carrying it was out of the question. Not only it was too heavy, but it was bleeding white slime, which could be corrosive or toxic. Dragging it was my best bet.
I concentrated, sending a mental image to the spear. Electric blue veins shot through the weapon. The spearhead curved into a crescent barbed hook. A cross-handle formed toward the foot of the shaft. That would do. I hooked the beast and pulled.
The body slid across the grass. The damn thing was heavy.
A thump followed by a faint creak announced the door of the house swinging open. Great, just what I needed. I spun, weighing my options. I was in a narrow space between two houses. Behind me, a wooden fence guarded the backyards. The lawn in front of me provided no cover. If I moved into the light to the left, the people would see me. Nowhere to go.
A man swore. “Look at the door.”
A woman said, “Oh my God.”
Oh my God is right.
A cell phone beeped. “I need to report an attack,” the man said. “Something chased my wife…”
I had minutes before the area was crawling with cops. Well, didn’t that just take the cake?
The fence belonging to the house on the left had a gate. I reached over it, groping for a lock. My fingers brushed metal. Victory! I flipped the latch. The gate swung open. I hooked the creature, dragged it into the neighboring backyard, and shut the door behind me. So far, so good.
The backyard was empty. Young oaks threw their shadows over the grass and to the right a wooden playhouse crouched in the shadows. Too small and too exposed to offer a good hiding spot. Besides, I couldn’t spend my night in the playhouse. I had no idea how long the cops would stay, and dragging the beast home in daylight wasn’t an option.
I pulled the creature across the grass to the opposite side of the yard and tried the fence. It was old and weather-beaten.
The distant wail of a siren rolled through the night. Alarm shot through me. I grabbed the old gray wood and pulled. A nail creaked, the wood popped, and a board came free in my hand. I grabbed the next one.
The siren was getting closer.
I yanked the second board off the fence. Here’s hoping people in the house were sound sleepers.
The siren screeched, so close.
I pried another board loose, then another. The gap had to be wide enough. I hooked the beast under the ribs and pushed it through the hole. It stuck, wedged. I grabbed its legs and stuffed them through, one at the time, careful not to touch any of the slime. Come on, fit through, you ugly thing.
The siren fell silent. I glanced over my shoulder. Red and blue lights illuminated the night behind me. The cavalry had arrived.
I pushed the last of the beast through the gap and climbed after it. To the right of me, a short palm spread its leaves, flanked by elephant grass. Water splashed.
“Did you hear that?” a woman asked.
I crouched behind the growth. No. No, you didn’t hear anything. Don’t mind me, I’m not hiding the corpse of a nasty creature behind your flower bed. Nope. Nothing here but cute, fluffy bunnies scampering adorably into the night…
“Hear what?” a man asked.
“The sirens, Kevin.”
Kevin was my kind of people.
Water splashed. “I’ve got the only siren I care about right here.”
Hello there, Mr. Smooth.
The woman giggled.
I leaned forward and peeked out from behind the greenery. A pool spread in front of me. Solar lights floated on the water, dappling the bottom with red and yellow circles. At the far end a man and woman in their forties sat on a step, half-submerged.
“Come on,” Kevin murmured. “Kids are asleep, the water is warm, the moon is out… I have the wine. We should drink the wine and then…”
“Would you like to fool around?” the woman asked.
“I wouldn’t be opposed, no.”
She put her arms around his neck. “Getting romantic in your old age?”
The shrubs at the edge of the pool were too short. I could possibly sneak by if I moved fast while they were distracted. If I tried to drag the body, they’d definitely see me.
I looked at the house. Directly in front of me, on the second floor, the curtains were open. An iPod charging station sat on the windowsill next to a stuffed teddy bear. Kid room.
I snuck along the shrubs, sprinted to the side of the house, and held my breath.
“Mmm, taking charge of the situation…,” the woman purred.
“You love it, baby.”
I almost felt bad, but I had no choice. I put my hand against the house. I was much weaker outside the inn, but I could still manage a basic push.
The inner workings of the house spread before me, the structural beams, the long stretches of pipe, and the spider work of wiring. I singled out the right wire and sent a gentle nudge.
The iPod station blared, spilling Nicki Minaj into the night.
The pool fell silent.
Something crashed above me. The music died.
“Mom?” a young female voice said. “Is that you?”
“Yes,” the woman answered. “Go back to sleep.”
“Is that Dad? Are the two of you doing it in the pool? Ew!”
Another window slid open and a boy’s voice called out. “What’s going on?”
“Mom and Dad are doing it in the pool.”
“Nobody is doing anything!” Kevin barked. “Go back to bed!”
“You know you can get diseases from doing that, right? The pool water isn’t sanitary…”
“It definitely won’t be sanitary after they’re done with it,” the boy quipped.
“Back to bed! Now!”
The windows closed.
Kevin groaned. “How long until they finish high school and go off to college?”
“I don’t think I can hold out that long.”
“Why don’t we grab our wine and take it inside?” the woman said. “We can go to our giant comfortable bedroom, lock the door, and drink wine. In bed.”
“That’s a great idea.”
A couple of minutes later, the door thudded closed. I waited a little while longer to be on the safe side and resumed my dragging. If my arms didn’t fall off, the cops didn’t bust me, and the amorous suburb residents stayed in their houses, I might even make it home in half an hour or so.
An hour later I trudged to the side gate of my wooden fence. It opened in anticipation and I stepped through onto the inn grounds. Power coursed through me. The spear-hook flowed back into the broom.
The dog door in the northern entrance swung open and Beast dashed out. She licked my feet, growled at the dead creature, and ran around me in a circle.
“Everything quiet while I was gone?”
The Beast dived at my feet again and licked my shoe.
“Take him to the basement,” I said.
The lawn under the body opened and the corpse fell through. The dirt and grass closed behind it and smoothed themselves out.
I went inside. The floorboards of the lobby parted at my approach, folding back on themselves and dropping down to form a stairway that led under the house. The stairs ran into the steel door. I descended and touched the metal. Magic licked my palm. A complex pattern of dark blue hairline cracks formed on the door and it slid aside. I walked in.
The lamp that was suspended in the middle of the room ignited, drenching the steel table below it in a white glow. The dead creature was lying on it and looked just as revolting as I remembered.
To the left and right, mood lamps came on in their wall sconces, their yellow light soothing and comfortable, in sharp contrast to the sterility of the lab lamp. Shelves lined the far wall, filled to the brink with books, while glass cabinets containing jars and containers in every size and shape occupied the other two walls. To the right, a concrete-and-tile decontamination shower stood waiting its chance to shine in the event of an emergency.
“Thank you.” I touched the table. “Secure, please.”
Metal strips curled from the table’s corners, locking the creature’s four limbs in place. I didn’t think it would come back to life, but you never know. Stranger things have happened. I put on a pair of scrubs, safety goggles and slipped on a pair of gloves.
The beast lay on its back, its wrinkled, hairless belly exposed. Ugly critter.
Time for the Creature Guide. I pulled a thick book from the shelf and waved my fingers above it. The book flipped through the pages, reacting to my magic. Looking things up manually was a centuries-old tradition, as ancient as the inns themselves. The advent of computers hadn’t changed anything. In the event of a Law Enforcement Breach, a computer would the first thing the LEOs –law enforcement officers –would confiscate. I had a laptop upstairs in plain view, partially for that exact purpose. They were welcome to my Twitter account and my gallery of cute fluffy animals dressed in hilarious Halloween costumes. Nobody thought to check the dead-tree books anymore, and even if they did, they would likely mistake the Guide for a novelty volume.
This copy of the Creature Guide was old. The inn itself was late nineteenth century, but the Creature Guide had a mottled leather binding with some gold tooling on the cover, which put it at least two centuries earlier. The prior owner of the inn must’ve inherited it from another innkeeper. As soon as I gained access to some funds, I’d have to get a more recent version.
The book was indexed by several criteria. I decided on Breathing. It was the most obvious choice and would let me knock a fair number of species off my list. The page offered me a long list of codes. I took a pair of forceps from the tray and pulled the beast’s nose open. Nothing obstructed the four nasal passages. The air didn’t seem to have had any adverse or toxic effects on it. I noted the codes for Nitrogen, Oxygen, Argon, CO2, and Neon, and continued.
Symmetry: bilateral. If you drew a line along the beast’s body from nose to the tail, the left side would be the mirror image of the right. Habitat: tentatively terrestrial. It didn’t have any gills, fins, feathers, or digging claws. Blood: white. A page of chemical tests presented itself, and I took a few samples and set to work.
Half an hour later I had the code range and pulled another thick volume from the shelf. “M4K6G-UR174-8LAN3-9800L-E86VA.” Say that three times fast.
The pages rustled. My analysis gave me roughly one hundred and thirty-two possibilities. Luckily for me, the descriptions came with pictures. Let’s see… No, no, ew, no, how did this thing even move, no… I kept turning the pages, and when a familiar revolting image appeared, I almost blew right by it.
Ma’avi Kerras. The Ma’avi Stalker family. Predatory, deadly, hunts by sight and scent, travels in packs. Packs. Great. The intelligence scale indicated the stalkers ranked between forty six and fifty eight, about as smart as the average baboon, which made them quite intelligent for the animal kingdom and very dangerous. Not intelligent enough to travel to the inn by themselves, however. Someone had brought this lovely creature here, to Red Deer, and let it loose on an unsuspecting populace. Had it been dumped here and left to wreak havoc? Why? By whom? Where were its masters?
I read the article again. It was more like a stub, a brief summary, than an in-depth description. I needed more data. I sighed. It’s one thing to know your archives are woefully inadequate, but it’s a completely different ball game when your nose is rubbed in it.
The stalker was dead. Even if I had somehow managed to take it alive, it didn’t have the brainpower to spill the proverbial beans. Cutting it into small pieces would be satisfying –my ribs still hurt –but futile.
I pulled off my gloves. If only Mom and Dad were still here…
The heartache mugged me. I squeezed my eyes tight against the hurt and wished with everything I had that they would walk through the door. My magic rolled from me in a powerful wave.
The inn creaked in alarm.
Nice going. I was scaring the house.
I opened my eyes. They weren’t there. Of course they weren’t.
“It’s all right.” I petted the wall. “It’s just a human thing. I miss them, that’s all.”
Further research would have to wait till morning when my head was clearer. I told the house to refrigerate my evidence and went upstairs to take a shower, treat my wounds, and swallow a couple of painkillers.