by Mark Eller
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
The boy moved forward and picked up the fallen flare. He was, perhaps, nine, or maybe ten. He was ragged-haired, cleanly dressed, and had large eyes. He held up the flare. “I can take you to the mine. It’s only a couple hundred yards from here.”
Reed looked at the broken pieces of the spear, but it did not move. Whatever force had animated it before was gone. He nodded, grabbed a fist-sized rock, and rose. He felt tired. He was more exhausted than he had ever been before. His arms were leaden, his legs weak, and his vision swirling. He had not been wounded again, but his nano or his fear had taken something from him. He wanted food — water. Most of all, he wanted to be left alone.
He looked towards the moon. It was completely shrouded by the clouds. He had no light other than the flare, and it would soon die. There were other hunters out there, stronger hunters. They would come for him soon.
Six of the Changed were dead. One had fled. Reed ran the possibilities over in his mind and felt ill.
He did not know how many Changed Cairn owned.
“Which way to the mine?” he asked the boy. The rock writhed in his hand. He looked at it and saw slowly blinking eyes and a granite grin. At the edge of his vision, a dead vine gently climbed the trunk of a tree.
“I’ll show you,” the boy said. He pranced forward and grabbed Reed by his free hand. Reed clenched tight and pulled the boy close.
“I never knew a monster could look so human,” Reed said. He swung with all his strength and felt the rock crack into the boy’s skull.
The boy staggered and snarled. His face turned toward Reed. His huge eyes glowed. Tendrils shot out of his arms, his mouth, and his ears. They speared toward Reed, but Reed turned in a fast circle, still holding the chameleon’s hand.
The chameleon’s feet left the ground. Tendrils speared into Reed’s chest and arms. One tendril entered his mouth and cut its way through his cheek. Reed screamed and bit down, feeling hard steel between his teeth. The chameleon slammed into a tree, rebounded, and then Reed slammed the rock into it once more.
The tendrils inside him became limp, fell away, and disappeared, nothing but illusion. The boy became a small, middle-aged man with three eyes and an extra arm. That arm gripped a knife that sank between Reed’s lips and out his cheek.
The chameleon felt at the dimple of its caved-in skull and looked at Reed with confusion. “Impossible,” it said.
Reed struck out with the rock again and again, striking fingers and arms and the chameleon’s head. It pulled on the knife, but Reed ground his teeth tight over the blade, refusing to let go. The rock in his hand chortled and giggled, growing harder and heavier with each blow.
The chameleon mewed and whined and tried to fend his blows off, but its hands broke, and then its arms. Reed struck and struck and could not miss because the rock was in control. He slammed the rock into the chameleon until its skull burst, until its chest caved, and then he pulled the chameleon’s knife from his mouth, leaned down, and separated the chameleon’s body from its head.
Reed straightened and leaned against a tree. His knees shook. His head swam, and he was tired. Blood filled his mouth, ran down his chin and over his shirt. He was wounded and weak and would become weaker before his nano healed the wound.
Reed leaned against the tree and waited to die because there was nothing else he could do. The small rock felt impossibly heavy in his hand. He opened his grip and let it go. The rock rested on the ground for a moment, giggled, and crumbled into dust.
Reed’s cheek itched and throbbed while its wound closed.
The flare sputtered low. The wraith wove into view. Its tongue flickered out, rested on Reed’s cheek, and sucked blood away.
“I thought you had already eaten,” Reed complained.
“Always room for dessert,” the wraith said. It flapped its wings gently, creating a small cooling breeze. It looked at the dead goblin and then at Reed. “Did you like killing your father?”
“Don’t play with me,” Reed said.
“Do you think I lie?”
“You love playing mind games,” Reed answered. “I think Robert Tailor follows your lead, so the last place I should go is the mine. You have something waiting for me there. You marked me for the hunt and then brought me here to be killed by your friends.”
“You are smarter than I thought,” the wraith said, “but you are still wrong.”
“Yeah. Right,” Reed said. His head no longer swam. His mind seemed clear, but his legs trembled, still weak. He wished he still held the rock. “I’ve been bitten. Will I catch the nano-plague?”
The wraith tipped back her head and laughed. “There never was a plague. My body holds the same nano as yours. I just... process it differently.”
“Nobody else believes that,” Reed pointed out.
“They guess,” the wraith replied, “I know.” She lifted her head and sniffed the air. “She has left the mine.”
And then the wraith was gone. Movement slithered in the tree. Reed smelled urine and fear sweat. He jerked when something slid over his shoulders. Resigned, almost too frightened to care, he looked down to see dead vines gently wrap themselves around his arms.
“Go ahead,” he whispered to them. “I’m too scared to move. I’m too tired to fight.”
The vines looped coil after coil around his arms until nothing but vine showed.
“Are you going to kill me?” Reed asked.
One coil tightened momentarily.
The flare flickered out. Above him, clouds rolled deeper. Distant thunder sounded and his face felt wet from tears. Reed hugged his vine-covered arms to himself. He needed a weapon. He fumbled in his magic bag, dropped scarves, tiny cups, and small bits of mirrors to the ground. When he finished, nothing remained in the bag but granulated powder and a lotion for smoothing dry hands. He left the bag open, set his cheek against the tree’s trunk, and sobbed because he was going to die.
“Don’t cry,” a voice whispered. Soft arms wrapped around his neck. A tongue licked his lips. Cracked lips pressed to his own. The lips were soft, demanding. They grew hard when Reed did not respond. Angry hands pushed him away, but they still held his arms.
“I waited in the mine,” the voice said, “but you did not come. Why didn’t you come, Magus? Why won’t you kiss me?”
“I don’t know you,” Reed whispered. His heart beat heavy. His hands trembled. He wished for his knife, the spear, or even the rock, but he had nothing to fight a being he could not see. He felt resigned, defeated, and scared. “You’re going to kill me.”
“Of course,” the voice gently replied, “but I’m going to love you first. I always wanted to love you, Magus. I wondered for a long time what it would be like to have my legs wrapped around your waist while I drank your blood. I wondered about that even before I changed.”
“I don’t know who you are,” Reed insisted.
A hand grasped his hair and jerked his head back. “I want to eat your lying tongue,” the voice hissed. “How can you pretend you don’t know me? I followed your father’s trail for half a year just to be near you. I sat in filthy bars and clubs. I listened to his foul music so I could watch you perform. How dare you not know me!”
Magus allowed the memory of smoky bars to run through his mind. He remembered smiles and curses and a fight when somebody’s broken bottle cut into somebody else’s vein. A thousand faces ran through his mind, and none of them struck him as odd or overly familiar. He had seen hundreds of young women. Not one had paid a lonely boy special mind. The only person who had ever applauded his amateur tricks had been an old woman wearing a cowboy hat when he worked a diner in Reno — but hadn’t she also been at Cat’s Corner?
“Was I too old for you?” the woman hissed. “Did I revolt you?” Her breath smelled of dead flesh.
“I never noticed you,” Reed whispered. His voice sounded weak, shaky, almost gone.
“Because you were young,” she growled. “Strong limbs. Smooth skin. You laughed at me. I dreamed of your hands. I craved your loins, but I knew you laughed at the fantasies of a sun-wrinkled old woman. I’m not old anymore, boy. I’m young and strong and I take who I want.”
Her hand gripped Reed’s crotch, squeezed. “I’m going to rip them off, Magus. When I’m finished, I’m going to rip them free and boil them in your blood.”
Reed stared into the dark and quailed inside. He was afraid to die, afraid of pain, and frightened for his soul. He stared into the dark and wished he could see the monster holding him; he wished he was nine and the world was still whole. Most of all, he wished Dr. Wise had never let her nano roam free.
The hand at his crotch moved, pulled at his belt.
“Please help me,” he begged the night just as his pants fell.
The thing holding him cursed. She pulled back and Reed’s arms jerked forward. She cursed again. “Let me go!” she hissed, and then Reed’s head rocked to the force of her blow. “Let me go!”
Above him, the clouds momentarily parted. A shaft of moonlight fell bright enough show her gray outline, to show the silhouetted wraith standing nearby, head canted slightly to one side, silently laughing. The vines around Reed’s arms were nearly gone. Still looped to his wrists, they merged with the vampire woman’s gray form.
She released a cat’s yowl and slammed herself into him. Her hand grabbed Reed’s hair, jerked his head back. Her face moved forward with teeth bared. Those teeth sank into his throat, bit deep, ripped, and then he was free, cast aside. She stumbled back, spitting curses.
“What are you!” she demanded as vines climbed her body and encircled her neck. “What have you become!”
His blood glowed on her lips, smoked, and then her face burst into flame. The flame spread to her cheeks, her hair. She opened her mouth, screamed, and a vine darted inside. She convulsed, beat at her face, fell and died. Seconds later, the burning vine crawled out of her mouth. Flames rose from her body like she was an oil-soaked log. Yellow, orange, and blue, the flames made no smoke, no smell. The wraith held her open wings over the heat and released a contented sigh. Reed slowly pulled his soaking pants up to his waist.
“I can never get too warm,” the wraith said. She sniffed the air. “Did you have an accident? I smell pee.”
“What did you do to me?” Reed demanded.
“I ate your soul and spat it into that woman in the barn,” the wraith said, “I gave it back to you tonight because I like games. I made nano and played with nano, but that wasn’t enough fun.”
“You’re Doctor Wise,” Reed said.
She nodded. “But I wasn’t so wise after all. We Changed don’t age. We don’t breed, but we hunt very well. Humans will soon become few and then disappear. The Changed will have nothing to hunt except ourselves, and before long, we too will be gone. I’ll be alone. No humans. No Changed. Only me. I’ll be bored.”
“So you ate my soul,” Reed said, and with those words his fear melted away. He was dirty and foul. He was tired, abused, and confused, but he was no longer afraid. His soul had been eaten, changed, and returned. Death could not be worse.
She nodded. “I put your soul back after my new virus changed your old one.” She smiled at him, and her eyes were gay. “I knew you would live because I made a few others like you, but they were flawed. Their nano couldn’t order the inanimate, and all but one died.”
“Robert Tailor?” Reed asked.
The wraith laughed. “There are still two monsters left. Let’s go play.”
Reed looked at the weeds around her feet. “Kill her,” he ordered. The weeds did not move.
The wraith crowed, clapping her hands. “You control the inanimate, but it won’t work against me. I’m too smart. I control all nano. I’m a monster by choice.”
“So I’m your slave,” Reed said flatly, and he reached into his magic bag, rubbing his fingers along its coated side.
“You’re my toy, my secret ploy.” She gestured. “Come to me boy and be my joy.”
Without desire, Reed’s legs moved him forward. His hands reached for her, and the burning dead vines around his arms slithered away. He tried to stop moving, but his efforts were in vain.
“Even monsters need love,” she said when his arms wrapped around her neck. “Kiss me.”
Her lips were cold, loose rubber. Her tongue was a thin barbed whip that tasted foul. She broke the kiss and Reed wanted to puke.
“Am I Changed?” he asked when he could speak. He ran his fingers through her hair, gently stroked her cheek, and caressed her wings.
“You’re different,” the wraith said. She ran her snake tongue across her lips. Her eyes were insane. “I needed a hunter to hunt the hunters. I will release my newest nano when the hunters are gone. Then we will really have fun discovering what I can make the remaining humans become.”
Reed kissed her leathery cheek. “You’re a monster.”
She held him tight and crooned. “Because that is what I choose,” she said.
Reed stroked his fingers through her hair once again. He slapped her face, breaking open the small beads he had just put there.
She snarled, and then blinked. Her face twisted in surprise, in pain. She flung Reed through the air. He hit the ground and rolled. His chest ached and bled where she had struck him with her claws. Fire flickered over his hand, eating away the coating that was infused into the material of his magic bag. Reed clenched his teeth and rubbed his hand on the ground until the fire disappeared. The wraith stood and screamed and tore away burning hair. Her cheek bubbled. Her wings flared. She had no eyes.
“I control nano!” she screamed.
“My name is Magus,” Reed said quietly, knowing she would not hear, “and monsters have to die.”
The wraith sank to her knees. “It’s dark,” she whimpered.
“Let there be light,” Reed said. He reached into his magic bag with his burnt hand and threw more encapsulated phosphorous onto her fire. “Burn.”
She screamed again and he turned away, unwilling to watch her pain, to see her die when the phosphor burned into her brain. He felt weak, drained, and the cave waited. Its narrow walls would protect him until morning. He would return to Cairn then, return to Robert Tailor’s home. Tailor would tell him where the remaining monsters laired during the day, but Magus would not seek them out. He would wait until the sun set, until the stars shone, until the monsters woke, became aware and quick and strong.
Only then would his Hunt Night begin.
Copyright © 2007 by Mark Eller