Mirah Bolender’s fast-paced, adventure fantasy debut, , features a bomb squad that defuses magic weapons.
Five hundred years ago, magi created a weapon they couldn’t control. An infestation that ate magic—and anything else it came into contact with. Enemies and allies were equally filling.
Only an elite team of non-magical humans, known as sweepers, can defuse and dispose of infestations before they spread. Most die before they finish training.
Laura, a new team member, has stayed alive longer than most. Now, she’s the last—and only—sweeper standing between the city and a massive infestation.
Two weeks after the “temple test,” Laura woke to a noise at the door. She stirred, wondering dimly what was going on. It couldn’t be later than four in the morning. Shuffling. Door opening.
Aunt Morgan had answered the door. Good for her. She could take care of it. Laura buried her face in her pillow and began to drift off again. Another noise came from much closer, and she squinted to the side. Morgan leaned against the doorjamb, looking exhausted.
“Hey, Laura.” The sleepy drawl slurred her words. “The office got a call for you from Mr. Sinclair. There’s something going on. Says you’re going to help him sometime today for something or other.”
“Why’d he call now, though?”
Morgan shrugged. “Don’t know.”
“I’ll ask him about it when I go to work.”
Morgan drifted away. The door didn’t close all the way behind her, but Laura was too tired to care. She closed her eyes and began to doze. She fell asleep again by the time the second noise came to the door. This knocking was much louder and more insistent, and Laura woke as soon as it began. Annoyed grumbling heralded Morgan’s shuffling feet. Cheryl made a loud, unhappy noise.
Clae couldn’t be expecting her to go to the shop at this hour, could he? Laura frowned at the idea and buried her head under her pillow. Maybe she could drown out the sound of the door. The next thing she knew, the pillow was yanked away. She glared at the culprit, but the look faltered as she realized that it wasn’t Morgan.
“Clae?” she spluttered, instantly awake. “What are you doing here?”
“Picking you up,” he replied, “like I said on the phone.”
“I don’t have a phone in here, you called the building phone! I didn’t get the message!” Laura snapped, sitting up and pulling her blanket closer about her.
“Person who answered it said she’d go tell you.”
“Well, she didn’t.”
“You know now. So get out of bed and let’s go.”
“Go where? It’s—” She scrambled for her pocket watch on the bedside table. “It’s four in the morning!”
In reality it was four forty-five, but it was in the hour of four and she resented that.
“The police are already out there, and they’re expecting us to arrive before five.”
“The Sixth Quarter.”
Laura had never physically been to the Sixth Quarter. Given the inhabitants, there were usually no amulets down there, and the few that did exist were with the military, so they were tightly regulated. No chance for infestation.
“What’s going on in the Sixth Quarter?”
“Stupidity, what do you think?” Clae scoffed. “Now get dressed and ready to go. I’ll be waiting outside.”
He tossed the pillow back and left, shouldering past Morgan in the doorway. Her aunt sent her a frightened look but closed the door behind him. Laura stared at it for a bit, then sprang up in a burst of energy. She rushed around her room, grabbing her clothes and supplies as fast as she could. Once she was decent, she tied her hair back and left her room. The first thing she saw was Cheryl leaning out of her own room, looking tired and grumpy, but lingering out of some begrudging interest in the strangers in the living room. Morgan stood near the sofa with much the same expression though less angry, twisting the cuff of her nightgown in anxiety; she followed their guests with her eyes as if afraid they’d snatch everything up and run. Clae inspected something on the wall, ignoring her completely, while Okane hovered near the door.
“Ready,” Laura called, and Morgan looked over in surprise.
“For what? What’s going on?”
“Just work.” Laura had to stifle a yawn.
“At this time of the morning?”
“Well, if someone wasn’t so impatient—”
“Don’t accuse me, go after the cops if you’re so upset.” Clae turned away from the wall.
“I’m sure she doesn’t mean it!” Morgan squeaked. “She’s just tired is all.”
“No kidding,” Laura muttered.
“Excuses. Come on. We’re going to be late already.”
Grumbling fitfully, Laura followed them out. Morgan watched as they passed.
“Good luck,” she called. “Don’t forget, call if you need anything.”
Laura was about to retort that we don’t have a telephone, that’s why they surprised us to begin with, but realization dawned. She meant the police, in case these strangers tried anything funny. Clae really did give off an awful impression.
She closed the door and they walked down the hallway. Laura wove a bit but rubbed her eyes and tried to wake up faster.
She looked up. Charlie stood by the stairs, a jumble of metal parts under his arms. Suspicious Morgan and her current nemesis? It was too early for this. What was he doing outside at nearly five in the morning?
“What are you doing out this early?” Charlie glanced at Clae and Okane, brow furrowing in suspicion.
“Going to work?”
“Yes. Out of the way, you’re blocking the stairs,” Clae grouched, using the briefcase to push him aside. Charlie gaped after him.
“Sorry. See you later.” Laura hurried on Clae’s heels, silently thanking him for being so rude.
But it wasn’t to be. After only some hesitation Charlie followed them down, jogging to keep level with Laura and juggling his load at the same time.
“What kind of work needs a lady out at this hour?” he asked. “You understand what people might think, seeing you out with two strange men?”
Laura barked out a bitter laugh. “Sorry, but it’s a little too early for me to worry about ruining my reputation.”
“People talk.” He glanced at Clae’s back, as if torn between confrontation and fear.
“Let them. All I’m doing is working. Besides, I’m not interested in that ‘perfect bride’ image anyway.”
“That’s rather angelina of you to say.”
That last line was muttered, not meant to be clearly heard, but he might as well have shouted it. Laura stopped so suddenly Okane almost ran into her. She didn’t notice. She glared at Charlie, hate curling in her stomach.
“What did you just say?” she hissed.
At first he looked confused, but it clicked quickly; Morgan Chandler, that Angelina on the top floor.
“I’m just saying that you’re taking it too lightly!” he defended. “You’re closing off your future. No one’s going to marry a woman they think is immoral.”
“So I’ll end up like my aunt is what you’re saying?”
“That’s not what I—”
“Really? Because that’s entirely what I heard.”
“Well, she’s not exactly the best role model!”
“You little rat! After all the things she’s done for you, you turn around and—”
“She doesn’t want you going down the same path either!”
“Oh, and I suppose you’ve discussed this?” He didn’t immediately reply, but his expression said enough. Laura’s glower darkened. “You didn’t. I can’t believe—”
“We’re just worried about you,” he said. “I’m serious. Keep going like you are and you won’t have any options left.”
“She has plenty of options,” said Clae. They jumped; he had stopped to look at them, eyes narrowed. “If you think all a woman’s good for is marrying, you’re very behind the times.”
“I think you’re more out of touch with the times,” Charlie retorted, bristling.
Clae ignored him and looked on at Laura. “We have more important matters right now.”
“We do.” Laura took three angry steps before whirling to glare again. “Don’t you dare get near Morgan again. Ever since you started going to that university, you’ve gotten pretentious. You’re not a gentleman. You’re a backstabber is all you are.”
She ignored him, pushing past Clae in a bid for the next set of stairs. Charlie made to follow, but Okane made a jerking movement and the machine parts spilled from his arms to clang upon the floor. Charlie let out a loud exclamation and Okane mumbled something about an apology before hightailing it. He passed Laura on the stairs, but luckily Charlie didn’t follow. Clae walked beside her, glancing behind them only once.
“Neighbor?” he grunted as they reached the next floor.
“Right.” Laura forced her voice into calm. She was going to work. The safe zone. She didn’t have to worry about nonsense like marriage or angelinas here. “We used to go to school together.”
“Good. If you said ‘boyfriend’ I was going to throw myself off the building.”
“So’s settling for a moron. It’d be a damn shame if you let someone like that limit you.”
They descended the stairs and made their way to the cable cars. The trolley ran at this hour, so the trek was made easier, though it was still time-consuming. Strangely enough, the police were waiting for them at the cable car station. Albright was at the head of the crowd, arms crossed and lips pursed. Laura wondered if Clae’s mere presence angered her.
“What?” he demanded as he stepped off the car, apprentices in his wake.
“It’s past five,” Albright growled.
“We ran into complications,” Clae sneered. “Now what’s going on? They’re not letting you in?”
Laura was mystified for a moment—who could keep the police from doing their job?—but she followed the gaze of one officer and spotted a grim-faced soldier with a rifle in his hands. Military.
“No,” Albright confirmed. It was obvious in her face that she took this personally. “We got the call, but we were only the middleman to get you here.”
“What’s the situation?”
“Five trainees were taken by an infestation in their barracks building. Apparently they disappeared into the dark. No bodies left, nothing—even furniture started vanishing. There was some sort of commotion. Hell if I know whether the rest made it out. Some hothead decided to lead a counterattack and asked for Sweeper backup. That’s all the information we have.”
“Are you expecting us to do a rescue mission?” Clae eyed her reproachfully.
“No.” She returned a withering look. “You get in there and get rid of the problem. If these people know anything they’ll evacuate on their own. But if you act quickly, you’ll limit the damage.”
“Roundabout rescue, then,” Clae murmured.
“Whatever you want to call it. You!” Albright called to the lone soldier. “Here are your Sweepers. Take them over.”
The soldier moved closer, watching them suspiciously, and Albright scoffed. “We’re not about to make a break for it. Hurry up.”
Scowling, he did as she said and moved faster. “Come with me,” he told the Sweepers, and led them away.
Their destination was a military barracks building near the middle of the Quarter on the west side. The structure rose half the height of the Cynder Block and wider, a dull gray color with windows marked by dark squares on its side, set in perfect rows that only added to the stern appearance. Its strict atmosphere was the complete opposite of the rickety shacks they’d passed on the way in. A few of those shacks were visible in the distance, but the military didn’t want any noncitizens (these days the thin Fifth Quarter overflowed into parts of the Sixth) getting too close to the barracks. A few sentries surveyed them suspiciously, glancing from wary noncitizens to the Sweepers being led past them. The building currently blazed with light, not from the inside but from an assembly of lanterns and electric lights dragged in from all over the Quarter. The Sweepers were asked to wait by a rickety jeep with its protruding headlights trained on the front door.
“They’re going all out,” Laura observed.
“The military is generally faster to act than the police and they actually retain some of the information on monsters, since they have to be able to deal with them beyond the walls,” Clae responded. “It’s unfortunate that they forget they can’t do a goddamn thing beyond trap it.” The last part was louder and directed toward the person coming toward them: a severe-looking man with a great mustache resembling a snake curling around his upper lip.
“It’s about time you got here.” His tone was as stiff as his posture.
“What’s going on in there?” Clae demanded.
“Our trainees started going missing. The signs point to it being one of your monsters, so we called for backup.”
“Yes, I’ve already heard that from the police. We need more details.”
The man grumbled, then elaborated, “It grew hands. The shadows grew hands and dragged them in.”
That definitely sounded like their sort of work.
“So you got out and set up the lights. But then you decided that charging in and antagonizing it was a good idea?”
“We were buying time for the rest of the trainees to get out, if there were any.”
“Don’t lie to me. Why did you really go in there?”
The man sneered. “You want the truth? Fine. It was one of the lower officers who rallied people here before anyone who should’ve been in charge arrived. There had to be at least twenty who ran in, but none of them have come out since.”
Clae heaved a long sigh, rubbing at his temple. “Of course. Besides the hands, do you know if there was anything distinctive about this monster?”
“I’m told it made a strange noise.”
“Was it a groaning sound? Screeching?”
Clae’s eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?”
“It made a scraping sound when it followed them,” said the man. “It was fast, just about on the trainees’ heels as they got out, and it left scores in the floor.”
“It left marks?”
Clae shifted his weight, eyes pensive. Laura was confused too. On other jobs, even during an infestation there were supposedly few physical marks left by the monsters beyond what they ate. Only the tools Sweepers used should scar the area. She had no idea why or how this one was marking up the place. Unless it was like the weird ones lately? Maverick? she mouthed at Clae, but he was focused on the man before them.
“It did. Is that strange to you?” the man was saying.
“Indeed.” Clae pondered a moment. “Where was it when it was first noticed?”
“Third floor. Midway through the hall, in one of the sleeping quarters. Took the first boy right out of his bed.”
“And it followed them downstairs?”
“Took two more on the way, yes.”
Clae nodded absently. “And the trainees who escaped? Where are they?”
“They’ve been transferred over to the southern barracks.” When Clae raised an eyebrow (the southern barracks were probably a ways away), the man continued, “The surrounding buildings have been evacuated.”
“Keep an eye on them. Keep an eye on anyone who was in that building.”
“Do you suspect something’s wrong with them?”
“This infestation’s showing some unusual behavior, so best keep on the safe side. All we need is for it to develop some kind of venom or disease. God forbid it start using humans as shells instead of amulets.”
Everyone, even the sentries nearby, tensed up. Any one of those outcomes could be catastrophic. Laura had never considered them before.
“You don’t think that could actually happen, do you?” she whispered. The very idea made her stomach turn.
“These things have stayed the same for countless generations,” muttered Clae. “Nothing does that. Animals change, develop camouflage and defenses. Humans create things like guns and walls. Just because it’s been like this as long as we know doesn’t mean the hive mind can’t evolve.”
“Can you still take it out?” the man demanded.
“Probably. We plan for this sort of thing with kin.”
“When will you start?”
Clae set down his briefcase with a grunt. He opened it up and began to sort through the contents.
“Laura, Okane. Take these.”
Laura knelt down and reached out her hands, and Okane did the same on his other side. Clae divided equipment between them. Laura ended up with two more Eggs, a large handful of Bijou, some wire, and a few pellets that served as flash bombs.
“If you use the Bijou, be careful. They’ll roll down stairs but not up. And go slow enough that they can keep sensing the amulets in your shoes. They’ll follow you,” Clae told them.
“Will that make a shield against this thing?” asked Laura.
“Depending on how strong it is. Bijou can easily keep a smaller one away, but a big, moving infestation may prove difficult. And be sure to aim right with your Eggs. They won’t do any good if they miss the target.”
They straightened up. Laura stored her new equipment in the various bags on her belt. She was stuffing the wire in, cursing because it kept trying to unravel, as Clae announced, “We’ll begin immediately. If we find any of your people we’ll send them out, but they’re not our first priority.”
“Understood.” The man nodded. “Are there any other precautions we should take?”
“Make sure no one comes in. I don’t care what excuse they have, we don’t want any other potential food sources available to it.”
“We’ll lock down the area even further. Anything else?”
“Have you got telephones in there? Of course you do. Get in contact with the police, have them get an operator to dial all the phones. It could serve as a distraction to the monster and might help locate your men. If any of them have survived, anyway. Doubtful.”
“Of course.” The man frowned. The military wasn’t fond of the police—something about child’s play in comparison to their job—so he probably wasn’t looking forward to working with them. His hand circled in a wordless gesture for any more information, but when none was forthcoming, he folded his arms. “Be fast. The creature has done enough damage.”
He turned away and began barking orders to the surrounding men, telling So-and-So to get those troops on the job, and So-and-So to regulate the lights and shut down any way others could get into the area. Soon only the Sweepers were left by the jeep. Clae shuffled, double-checking that his guns were still there and then checking the time on his watch, before putting a few more Bijou into his vest pocket.
“If you run out of ammunition, then get back out here if you can. There’s more in the case but I don’t want to bring it in there. Too bulky. Got it? Good. Let’s get going.”
The barracks doors were nondescript, but they opened on well-oiled hinges. Inside, the barracks were just as plain as the exterior. The walls had the same grayish color, the wooden floor polished to the point it shone dully in the light from the nearest window. Patches of light were visible down the hall, marking the places where windows were set, but for the most part darkness was overwhelming. Laura shook an Egg to get some better lighting.
“We stick close and comb the place,” Clae murmured, taking a step forward.
They crept down the hall. The muffled sound of shouting soldiers could be heard outside, but in here their footsteps echoed loudly. It rankled Laura to hear how much noise they made. The hallway led them right, and they did a full circuit of the first floor. This first floor was comprised of classrooms, mostly empty, with chalkboards at the front and desks and chairs scattered throughout the room. Nothing was in there, or if there was, the others didn’t acknowledge it. They located a set of stairs and began to climb.
“Sir,” Okane piped up as they walked.
“I thought I told you not to call me that,” Clae retorted. “What is it?”
“I’ve noticed that—always refer to those things as monsters, or creatures, or just things. Do they not have a name?”
“Yes and no.”
Laura didn’t think of it much, but she was sure at one point he’d called them something strange. “You did have a name for them, though, didn’t you?”
Clae made a humming sound as he reached the landing and peered around the corner. “Sweepers sometimes call them kaibutsu or bakemono.”
Laura tried to repeat the words and butchered them terribly. She frowned at that pathetic attempt. “Where do those names come from?”
“It’s the native language of Orien. Same language Sweepers used to name kin, same language your name comes from,” Clae replied, glancing back at Okane.
“Your name’s a word?” Laura asked, baffled.
“It means ‘money,’ ” he answered.
Silver-coin eyes. So someone else picked up on that too.
“What do those other names mean?”
“Essentially they translate into ‘monster.’ I’m not fluent so I don’t know the details or the differences, but that’s what Sweepers ended up using. The cities don’t uphold those as official names, though, so they’re falling out of use.”
“Why wouldn’t they—” Laura snapped her mouth shut and grabbed Clae’s sleeve. He stopped on the stair, turning his wary gaze on her.
“What is it?”
“There’s something up there.” She hadn’t gotten a good look at this distance, barely a glimpse out of the corner of her eye, but it was large and dark. Possibly their target. “On the floor.”
Maybe preparing to strike, she thought. Clae seemed to think the same. He held his arm out and motioned for them to move back. Laura descended two steps, quietly as possible. Okane leaned into the wall as if hoping to become one with it. No sound came from ahead. They stayed there, frozen, waiting for some kind of reaction. Nothing. The beam of a searchlight shone through the windows, dim and shifting slowly like the people outside were trying to observe them. It slid over the walls, just above the shape. It lit the Sweepers briefly, throwing Clae’s tense features into sharp relief before leaving them and tracking up toward the next floor. It took what seemed like forever. Laura held her breath so long she felt her lungs might burst.
Finally Clae moved his hand, a light wave signaling the apprentices to stay put. Slowly, slowly, he edged out and around the corner. Despite the warning Laura took his previous position, trying to see without exposing herself. There it was, a dark shape on the ground in the darkest corner of the hallway. It lay almost motionless, save for the slight rise and fall of its farthest portion. Clae approached as if expecting it to lash out and bite. Laura gripped her Egg tighter, calculating when to attack: before the creature moved, in case Clae couldn’t make a signal fast enough? He hovered by the shape, gun raised. After a moment he relaxed.
“Not our thing.” He toed it, no longer cautious.
Laura felt relief and disappointment in the same crashing wave. She relaxed her grip on the Egg, frowning at the lingering sting in her hand. How hard had she been holding it? “If it’s not one of your kaibutsu, what is it?”
“One of the trainees.”
Laura walked over to get a better look, raising the Egg to squint at the details. The boy sprawled there looked younger than she was, but he wore the trainees’ brown jacket, unbuttoned and thrown on over pajamas.
“The monster didn’t get him. What happened?” asked Laura.
“Hell, maybe he fainted.” Clae toed the body harder. “Hey, you. Get up.”
The body didn’t move, so he kicked it. This time the trainee jerked violently. He curled in on himself, coughing.
“Who are you and what are you doing here?” Clae demanded.
The boy looked up at him with wide eyes. He spluttered incoherently.
“I-I-I, uh, Jonathan Harrow! I, well, maybe I ah—”
“Spit it out.”
“I was running and I fell over and it was coming and I don’t know!”
“From which direction?”
“Which direction, I said!”
The boy pointed back over his shoulder, down the hall.
“Of course,” Clae muttered. “You, get downstairs and out of this building. Get in our way and I might accidentally shoot you.”
The trainee scrambled to his feet and tore off down the stairs, nearly bowling Okane over and tripping over himself on the way.
“We know it can easily go down stairs, but we’re not sure about up.” Clae glared after the trainee before turning his attention to them again. “If he’s right and it was following him here, it might be on this floor. Keep an eye out.”
He kept walking as if nothing had happened, and after a moment the other two followed.
The rooms on this floor were a mix of classrooms and sleeping quarters. All of them were the same: classrooms identical to the ones on the last floor, and all the sleeping quarters with six sets of bunk beds, three along each wall, metal frames and thin mattresses. Footlockers sat at the end of these beds, and they were unmade, but if it weren’t for that, every room would’ve looked exactly the same: uninhabited.
“Are we sure he was telling the truth?” Laura muttered as she closed another door. “I’m not seeing or hearing anything.”
“Perhaps it’s moved on?” Okane guessed.
“Maybe, maybe not. Don’t let your guard down,” said Clae.
As the group climbed up to the third floor, Laura shook her Egg, causing it to give off more light. The renewed glow illuminated marks in the wooden stairs. They all paused to inspect them. The scratches were fairly deep, but not terribly so. It was like someone swiped at the stairs with a knife, a back-and-forth kind of movement with a larger, deeper, main gouge scribbling in the midst of the others. They ended a third of the way down the stairs, then doubled back.
“You think that’s it?” asked Laura.
“Probably.” Clae ran his fingertips across the scrapes, frowning.
“So it’s got a fixed form, now?” Laura wasn’t sure what kind of form or body could make this sort of damage, and she wasn’t looking forward to seeing it.
“I don’t think so. It’s developed enough to eat furniture and people. If it had a fixed form it would be big enough to fit those inside. These marks were made by something fairly small. I don’t think it has a fixed form at all.”
“Then how’s it making the marks? Or is that something completely different?”
“If we’re judging by that story earlier, they’re one and the same. I think this one’s dragging its amulet around.”
“They can do that?” said Okane.
“Usually, no. It’s in their best interest to keep their roots in one place and protect them at all costs, so this one’s a bit of a maverick. That could be good or bad. It drags its weakness in plain sight, but again, it moves. No way to pin it down.”
“If the amulet made the marks, what’s it shaped like?” said Laura.
She’d heard stories about previous occasions when infestations sucked themselves completely into an amulet to hide. She didn’t want to walk right past it while it was hiding, only for the thing to pounce when she looked the other way.
“How the hell should I know?” Clae straightened up. “Whatever it is it can’t be much bigger than a cat. Probably smaller.”
Two for One
The scuffs on the floor continued down the hallway. At some points they skittered away from the main, middle pathway. Some traces trailed up the walls too, as high as Laura’s head. It made her think of a spider. She shuddered.
Okane made an odd sound, and Laura felt his shoulder bump into her back.
“What?” she whispered.
Okane stared at one of the doors, eyes wide and spooked. “Did—hear that?”
Laura strained her ears but heard nothing. The only things she could detect were their own breathing and the sounds of people outside. She glanced at him again in question. Almost as soon as she did, she heard it. A quiet, scraping noise. She tensed.
“Clae. . . .”
“I heard it.”
After some hesitation, Clae approached the door. The other two crept along in his wake, giving him a good head start. The door was already ajar, so Clae kicked it gently open. As he did he pulled out one of his guns. There was a split second of nothing. Laura thought maybe they were mistaken, but then came a high-pitched shriek. Clae jerked backward, but even before he did Okane moved, practically trampling Laura’s feet as he scrambled back toward the window. Laura lost her balance. She stumbled, and the world was a dark blur. She could hear Clae give a pained grunt, and a sudden splintering sound. There was a smash and a crash from either side of the hall, accompanied by an awful hiss and finally a burst of light before she caught the back of Okane’s vest. She blinked furiously, trying to haul herself back up and recover from that light.
“What the hell is going on?”
The hissing went off to her right and she jumped, still unable to make anything out. Soon enough the hiss ended, replaced by an odd skittering that faded quickly.
“Look,” came Clae’s voice, and gradually her vision cleared enough that she was able to see him again. “I get it, you don’t like it. But for god’s sake, don’t panic and take out your coworker.”
Clae happened to be glaring at Okane, who looked caught somewhere between the vestiges of fear and embarrassment. The remnants of an Egg were scattered on the ground, broken glass and kin liquid spreading along the floorboards. There was no sign of whatever had made that skitter noise, beyond a large chunk taken out of the doorway and a dent in the wall opposite. It looked like something had been launched through with enough force to rip pieces of the wall out with it. Laura gawked at it while the others squabbled.
“And you wasted an Egg. Didn’t I tell you to aim?”
“—know I hate it!” Okane hissed. “What did—think I’d do, seeing one of those things?”
“Use some sense,” Clae grumbled. “You were doing well with infestations in private lessons.”
“That one wasn’t flinging itself at my head!”
“You’ve got better defenses than we do, but we aren’t panicking.” He paused, took a deep breath. “You know what? Go outside. Wait by the briefcase.”
Okane looked horrified. “What?”
“I told you to go outside. If you’re going to be more hindrance than help, I don’t want you in the way. The light outside will keep you out of the infestation’s range.”
Clae glowered. Okane quailed, but choked out, “—said I’d be a good Sweeper.”
“If you’re under control. Are you under control?” Okane didn’t agree, but he didn’t deny either. Clae huffed. “Stay or leave, just commit to the choice you make. Remember what I said at the temple.”
He pulled down his goggles in a manner that seemed very arrogant. Laura wasn’t sure how he managed it. She pulled down her own in case of more unexpected Egg explosions. She pulled up her bandana too.
“You’re okay though, right?” she asked Okane. “It didn’t get you?”
“Of course not,” he muttered. He made a big deal of straightening his vest before sulking after Clae.
The new set of scratches led them around the floor, in and out of two bedrooms. Here beds were overturned, a few bunks warped or even missing, and the contents of footlockers strewn in a mess across the floorboards. Their quarry was nowhere to be seen, and neither were any soldiers. At the next staircase, though, they heard shuffling. Laura squinted. Between the darkness and the goggles, she couldn’t spot anything up there. She held up her Egg as they began to ascend. The noise started up and stopped three different times, going from one side to the other. Laura couldn’t help but think it sounded gleeful.
“I don’t like this,” she muttered.
“And you did before?” said Clae.
A particularly loud, long scratch came from above. Their footsteps wavered.
“Okane? You sensing anything to go along with that?” asked Laura.
He said something quiet and unintelligible, but she got the idea. He didn’t want to go up there. She walked in front of him this time; she didn’t want to be knocked over again, especially on stairs. As they reached the landing they saw nothing out of the ordinary. Marks on the ground, yes, but that was no longer unusual. The three milled about at the top of the stairs.
“We definitely heard it, so where’d it go?” Laura looked around, to no avail. She wished the lights were on in here; the darkness set her on edge just as much as the noise had. She clenched her free hand a few times, trying to keep shaking to a minimum.
“It’s a fast little bastard,” Clae grumbled.
Another sound caused them all to whip around. Farther down the hall, in a patch of faint light from the window, sat a large wooden object. It was a disc the size of a plate, dipping in deeply. It was weirdly shaped, with protrusions on the bottom so it lay lopsided.
“Is that the amulet? It’s a lot bigger than the others I’ve seen,” said Laura.
“That’s definitely the source,” said Okane.
Before their eyes, the wooden object moved. It jerked to the left, then back, then up. It stood upright on its thinnest portion, revealing exactly what it was. The thing was a mask. And god, it was creepy. It had stubby little horns, bulging eyes, and strange curved carvings and marks twisting its features into an ugly grimace. Its eyes glowed rosy red in comparison to its dark brown body. The nose was huge, almost a beak. Clae swore at the sight of it.
“There are two amulets! The eyes! They’re amulets!”
The mask hissed, and the red sockets began to ooze blackness. That blackness grew, turning into long, thin, reedy arms that bent sharply and touched the floor like spider legs. It pushed itself forward, faster than a charging horse. The bumps on the front dragged brutally along the floor, nose gouging that deep mark from the previous tracks.
It seemed hell-bent for the wall, so Laura sprang out of the way. She nicked the Egg against her amulet and slung it down at the approaching creature. The glass cracked.
They fled as fast as they could before the inevitable happened and the Egg detonated. It went off with a roar and a blast that sent everyone reeling. Laura was thrown completely off her feet and tumbled onto the floor. She yelped in pain as she came to a stop, but the sound was overpowered by the shrieking of the creature. The Egg blast sent it straight up in the air so it smashed into the ceiling. It dropped back to the floor with a loud crunch against the glass shards. The kin liquid and glass pieces spat angrily and leapt up, stinging the mask’s sides. The creature hopped madly to avoid it. Unfortunately it was dancing toward the corner by the stairs, exactly where Okane was huddled. He stared at it like it was death approaching. Laura scrambled up at the sight, heart in her throat.
“Run!” she cried. “Get out of there, you idiot!”
But he didn’t move. He just tensed up more as it got within two feet of him. That was when it realized something was there. Halfway through a hop it raised some of its arms, ready to strike.
Okane still didn’t make to get up. Instead he drew back his legs, and in one suicidal move, he lashed out in a kick. It was a very bad idea to touch one of these monsters. They stuck to any living thing they touched, wrapped them up, and pulled them in to eat. As far as Laura knew, no one had ever gotten away from them before. Okane’s feet connected with the mask with a loud retort, but instead of latching on to him the creature let out an even more piercing sound. Its hands recoiled as if burned, and with a deafening snap it tumbled away. It rolled through the glass again, shuddered violently.
Clae grabbed Okane’s shirt and heaved him up, shoving him away from the wall. Okane stumbled before bolting past the creature, only slowing when he passed Laura. The creature, meanwhile, began to grow. The darkness swelled, slimy body roiling and swallowing up the mask entirely. Soon it ballooned to take up the entire width of the hallway, a pulsing black mass that shone particularly slimy.
“C-Clae?” said Laura. “Clae, what now?”
“Get out of the damn way!” he yelled back, completely obscured.
Okane tugged at Laura’s sleeve, shaky but getting more adamant as the infestation hit the ceiling. Its black mass uncoiled there and spread, a disarray of muddled tentacles with acrid black smoke issuing from their midst. Laura gaped at it in horror, and Okane’s tugging increased.
“Laura, Laura, Laura—”
The ceiling tendrils began to fall, and Laura finally pedaled backward. She and Okane ran as fast as they could down the hall, and the blackness followed, crashing against the walls like a tidal wave. As she sprinted, Laura wrestled with the clasp of her belt bag, searching for more ammunition. She fished out another Egg and tapped her amulet before tossing it over her shoulder. She didn’t look to see if she aimed right. They rounded the corner just in time. This explosion shook the floor, and Laura heard windows shattering. More glass shards flew across the ground, hissing and spitting, and the creature wailed horribly. Their footing was thrown off. As she stumbled, two Bijou fell out of Laura’s pocket to clatter on the floor. She stopped short.
“What are—doing?” Okane screeched.
Laura fumbled with the wire from her bag, and once she’d wrestled it out, she flicked it. Just like before, it sparked, and she dropped it down by the fallen Bijou as she dug the rest out. The first two lit up with a bang. More of the windows nearby smashed, and the force and heat caused Laura to fall over. Screw it. She chucked the rest of the Bijou at the hissing wire, then scrambled farther away. Okane practically dragged her to her feet. With the following blasts, the entire building shuddered. They were lucky to get around the other corner before it could reach them, but the roaring, rending, and crashing behind them made Laura’s heart sink.
The Bijou took out the entire wall and ceiling. A gaping hole was all that remained of that wall, and part of the floor above had fallen through, littering the hall with debris and dust. Underneath it all the Bijou popped and shrieked, throwing up sparks and causing patches of wreckage to rumble and quake. Laura doubled back, and Okane stumbled to a stop.
“Bijou! Don’t worry, I’ll be okay!”
She hopped onto a busted beam and balanced there, looking out over the damage. She couldn’t see the creature, but she couldn’t see Clae either. Maybe he was around the corner. Out of the way of the blast. She hoped so. The popping grew nearer and a Bijou hopped up out of the bricks. It crackled and squealed and jumped some more, probably sensing the amulets in her boots.
“Clae?” she called. “Are you there?”
Another portion of the debris shifted. For a moment she was afraid he really did get caught up in it. There was an apology on her tongue that died as another beam shifted, and the mask shot up. Its dark arms sprouted again, gooier this time, and it landed in a cloud of dust. Laura nearly tripped in her haste to get off the beam and run. Three more Bijou followed the first, rolling under the beam after her, and she forced herself to go slower so they could keep up.
“Faster, faster!” Okane hissed, gesturing madly.
“No, you get over here!” she retorted.
“No way in—”
“The Bijou, stupid! Clae said they’d help!”
Okane made a long-suffering sound and joined her. The Bijou circled them as they moved, spouting tongues of white-hot sparks. In the meantime the creature had scrambled over the beam to follow them. Laura glanced back at it and wished she had a gun. The creature gained quickly. Two of its arms reared up, aiming down at them. Laura and Okane ducked, but it didn’t get within a foot of them before the Bijou spat even higher. They stung the monster, causing an acrid smell to taint the air. The creature recoiled immediately. Smoke rose from its burned limbs.
“Where’s Clae?” asked Okane. “Shouldn’t he be doing something?”
“I don’t know! I think I might’ve cut him off,” groaned Laura, hoping she was wrong as the Bijou assaulted the creature again. “It might take a little while for him to get over here.”
“Great, that’s just great,” Okane hissed, and Laura glared at him.
“What have you been doing, huh? At least I’m throwing things at it!”
“And blowing up the whole floor—”
“At least I hit it!”
The creature shrieked and swiped. They jumped out of the way in time, but it caught one of the Bijou. The bead was hit so hard it flew right through the wall, causing another crash and creating a hole big enough to be a window. As a result, though, the creature lost a limb. The rest of the arms kept scuttling, gaining, but one stump simply drooped, dragging along the floor and giving off black smoke. Okane slowed just enough to kick another Bijou at it, hoping to take advantage of this weakness. It caught the creature smack in the middle of the mask, sticking in the dip between nose and forehead, and let out a noise like a train whistle. The creature stopped completely, rearing back with a wail as its arms groped at the mask, trying to dislodge the thing causing it so much agony. It swung itself from side to side, crashing into the wall and flailing madly.
“We’re dead,” Laura said under her breath, “we are so dead. . . .”
“Well, what are we supposed to do?” cried Okane.
“Get to the amulets and douse them with kin! But we can’t get through that!” Laura replied, gesturing back at the creature.
As she did this, the monster decided it was impossible to get rid of the Bijou. Instead it turned on them with new vigor, blackness seething through the teeth and nostrils of the mask. It lunged, screeching a battle cry. Okane grabbed Laura by the sleeve and dragged her along, running so fast Laura could barely keep up. The infestation gave chase, thundering on uneven legs and spitting blackness to spatter the floor. They arrived at the stairs to the fifth floor. Okane took them two at a time, but while Laura did that going upstairs at home, she couldn’t do it at this speed. With a yelp, she tripped and went sprawling. Her fall yanked Okane down too, and he wiped out with a howl of pain. The Bijou spat near the foot of the stairs, but they were too far away to do anything. The creature’s legs grew longer, allowing it to walk right over them. Laura held up her last Egg, hoping kin light would deter the monster, but it was useless. The mask descended, and the creature shrieked with glee.
A shot rang out, and the mask jerked violently. Half of it was blown to bits in a flash of gold. The creature squealed. With half its form gone it couldn’t steady itself, so it plowed into the wall and slipped down to the floor. Laura stared at it in shock, then looked up. Clae strode down the hall looking rather the worse for wear. He was battered and dusty, blood smeared on his face and favoring his left leg, but he was still on the move.
“Thank god,” Laura whispered.
She scrambled over to Okane, pulling him out of his daze and onto his feet. As she did, Clae got close enough to plant one foot on the mask. The creature reached up to attack, but his eyes promised pain. He shot at the blackness, severing more limbs and making the creature squeal loud enough to hurt their ears.
“Get that Egg over here!” he barked.
Laura jumped down the stairs. She hurried up to him, evading the flailing limbs. He used his foot to flip the mask so it faced up. Only one of the eyes remained. Sucking in a deep breath, Laura cracked the Egg open and held it over the mask. As soon as the kin made contact, it bubbled. More blackness spurted and frothed from its mouth, but it was overtaken fast by golden light. It hissed angrily. Limbs sprouted to thrash in desperation, but they didn’t last any longer than the froth. An awful smell tainted the air. The kin condensed on the amulet, now cracking and spitting. It looked like it was getting cooked. The main form fizzled away into nothing, and Clae lowered his guns.
Portions of kin shone and glittered like gems, overshadowing the rest in a way Laura hadn’t thought possible. It emitted sounds eerily reminiscent of the plinking of a harp. With every note it grew louder and harsher, and the mask began to quake.
“Three,” Clae counted, and Laura realized what was going on.
“Okane! Cover your mouth and nose!”
Okane looked at her like she’d gone insane, but understanding dawned.
With an audible snap, a black cloud issued out from under the gold. It didn’t get very far, but judging by the gagging behind them it still had the same
potent stench. The kin now soaked into the mask without resistance.
“This one’s dead. The other one should be too, seeing as how I smashed it into a million goddamn pieces,” Clae seethed. He leaned to the side and spat out something dark.
“Are you okay? I didn’t end up hitting you with that Egg or the Bijou, did I?” Laura fretted.
“Damn kaibutsu knocked me down the stairs.”
“That must’ve hurt.” Laura winced, but secretly she was glad. At least she wasn’t the one to do it.
Clae gave her a look that said no shit and turned around.
“Stop that noise and start gathering up the pieces,” he barked, gesturing at Okane and the steps. “We have to get all of those together. Leave one piece and it could end up host to a new infestation.”
Okane scowled at him, eyes still watering, but dutifully began to pick up bits of mask from the stairs.
“Go help him.” Clae slapped a hand against Laura’s arm. “I’m going to find that telephone. It’s giving me a headache.”
It was only now that he mentioned it that Laura realized there was a phone going off. She could hear the tinny bell through one of the doors. She nodded and joined Okane by the steps. The pieces of the mask and amulet were anywhere from pea-size to chunks the length of a nail. It was hard to spot them all in the dark, and Laura pulled off her goggles to see them better. It didn’t help much. On the plus side, the floor was otherwise so clean there was nothing to confuse them with. Might as well just get a broom to sweep it all up.
“Why aren’t the lights on?” she muttered. “I’d think at least the military would have electricity.”
“Gas lighting.” Okane dropped another shard into his cupped hand.
“How do you figure?”
“The Sullivans used to have it before they remodeled their house.” He nodded up at one of the light fixtures. “See that valve? That turns on the gas. Then—light it.”
“We could turn it on now, couldn’t we? Have you got any matches?”
“No. Besides, I’m not an expert on gas and I don’t want it to explode. Come to think of it, the gas must’ve been shut off before we came in. Otherwise we’d probably be dead after all those explosions.”
Laura frowned and tried to redirect the topic. “Not an expert, huh? Didn’t you just say the Sullivans had it?”
“I wasn’t very old. I couldn’t even reach it at the time.”
“Ah . . . Makes sense, I suppose.”
Laura returned to gathering pieces. They crawled about in search of parts while Clae talked to the telephone operator in the other room. One of the things he said caught Laura’s attention: the mention of the missing soldiers.
“We only came across one. We’re on the fourth floor. They can’t all be holed up in the top level.”
Laura didn’t know how many people could’ve been in the building, except that there must’ve been a lot, judging by the number of beds and the mention of a counterattack. In an ambush, any number of people could’ve vanished. She hoped Clae was wrong, that a bunch of soldiers lurked upstairs. Soldiers to match the scattered lives and possessions in those rooms they’d passed. In the end the missing persons would be counted, and that number would determine the death count. It wasn’t like they could count bodies. Even when monsters were killed they left nothing behind. Whatever they ate was lost to the world forever.
Copyright © 2018 by Mirah Bolender
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