It was a sunny April morning, and Zack was almost ready for school. Socks and Mittens, his two cats, wound dangerously around his legs as he opened a new pack of kibble.
“You know, tripping me won’t make this go any quicker. Unless you hope I spill it all when I fall, which… is actually a good strategy, you little jerks.” The teenager stepped over the crowding cats and towards their empty food bowls. As soon as he filled those, the cats forgot all about him, and Zack was free. He grabbed his backpack, slipped his sneakers on and opened the door only to freeze in confusion. There was a cat on his doormat. No. A corpse of a cat.
It did not look like roadkill, but rather like the victim of another animal or someone who shouldn’t qualify as a human. Zack swore angrily and shut the door to keep his own cats from seeing or smelling the dead cat. In truth, he did not want to get close to it either.
Poor kitty. He couldn’t leave it out there. But school was starting soon, he had to act quickly.
Zack got a plastic bag and his polaroid. He took a photo in case it was a lost pet, then slid the doormat with the cat into the garbage bag. He couldn’t quite decide how to proceed from there. Throwing it away as garbage felt very wrong, but he didn’t want to bring it in and freak out Socks and Mittens.
His first thought was to call the shelter, but it was too far away, and people there had their hands full with live cats needing help. Instead, he decided to call Dr. Oldman, the veterinarian of Phobos and Deimos. Dr. Oldman’s clinic wasn’t that far from his school, so he wouldn’t even be late for class if he could leave the cat there.
Zack dialed the number, and after two signals, a familiar cordial voice answered.
“Dr. Oldman speaking.”
“Uh, hi Mr. Oldman.”
“Ah, Junior. How can I help you, lad?”
“Um, Mr. Oldman, there’s a dead cat on my doormat. I mean, someone left a dead cat on my doormat. I think. Anyway, can I bring it to you, so you could cremate it or something? I’ll pay and all.”
“My poor boy, how morbid… Of course I will cremate it for you, but shouldn’t you call the police or your father first? A dead animal on the doorstep sounds… concerning.”
“I’m already kind of late for school, so I’d rather just drop the cat at your place if that’s ok. I’ll pick the ashes up. I hate the idea of dropping the poor dead thing in the garbage.”
“Sure, boy, don’t you worry. Bring it here, and I’ll handle the rest. And please be careful, who knows what kind of a terrible person would do such a thing, and why they would leave it at your door.”
“Oh, I have some ideas,” Zack said, frowning. “I might know just the prick- uh, sorry for the language.”
“No problem, lad. No problem at all.”
Zack said he would be there in fifteen minutes. It only took him ten, and he managed to make it to class on time. The rest of the day was utterly uneventful. After school he dropped by the shelter to ask if anyone knew of a lost cat like that, but it didn’t fit any of the lost pet descriptions they had. He picked the ashes from the vet, and with a sense of dread, headed home.
This time there were no dead animals on his doormat. In fact, since he gave away the doormat together with the cat, the doormat wasn’t there either. He had to get a new one sometime. Zack unlocked the door and sighed with relief when Socks and Mittens greeted him with a chorus of hungry yodeling, as blissfully oblivious as ever.
“Aha, yes, yes, I know, you’re famished. You haven’t eaten in weeks. It’s not like you’re slowly turning into two hams on legs, not at all.” He reached down and scratched the cats’ chubby sides.
He put the ashes and photo out of sight inside a cupboard and for an hour or so all his worries were forgotten, until his phone rang. It was his dad. Of course, he should have guessed Mr. Oldman would call him and tell him what happened. Now his dad was concerned.
“No, really, Dad, I’m fine,” Zack said in exasperation. “There’s no need to hire a private eye or whatever. I mean I know who did it — it’s Taylor, duh, who else would it be?”
“It cannot be Taylor.”
“Of course it can!” Zack tensed up. “You always defend him! Why won’t you ever listen-”
“You miss my point, Junior, he’s out of town, on a trip with his father.”
“Oh.” Zack paused, his anger extinguished. He mulled over the news. “I guess that explains why I haven’t seen him at school for a while. I thought he was trying to set a record skipping class.”
“Well, now that we’ve established it’s not Taylor playing a tasteless prank on you, I believe we should take the whole affair seriously. Has anyone threatened your biker friends recently?”
“Not since all the Undying went and, well, died… So much for that name.” The boy rubbed the bridge of his nose. “No, these last several weeks have been almost entirely uneventful.” Zack began to relax. Knowing it wasn’t Taylor that left a dead cat at his door was comforting. Both because that meant that maybe approaching him in the cemetery had been the right choice, and because now whoever actually killed the cat would get their comeuppance. “If you want someone to look into it, I didn’t really clean outside much, so maybe there’s evidence or something. I also have a photo of the cat.” Zack didn’t care much about the potential investigation, but if his dad was so into it, why not indulge him?
“I’ll see what can be done,” Hector assured him.
“Aha,” Zack nodded. They talked for a bit longer about more mundane subjects. School, Hector’s business, Wyatt’s studies, their common plans for the weekend.
“Oh!” Zack remembered something. “Dad, I have something to ask of you. Could you drop by a couple of bars with me on the weekend?”
“Yeah, two of my biker friends want to start their own business, a… well, gay bar, you know. And they’re looking at some properties, I thought like, you know about real estate and stuff, right? Maybe you could look at the places with us, help them choose? If it’s not too much trouble.”
“Of course, I’d love to help, Junior.”
Zack smiled. “Thanks, Dad.”
“No problem. What addresses are they looking at?”
Zack’s eyebrows rose. “It was something on Malintzin and another place on Jerez.”
“Hm. Are you sure you remember right? Those would be terrible choices, to be honest. The square on Malintzin is a favorite spot of the local preacher, and there’s a Catholic school next door, so your friends would instantly have pickets outside their establishment. As for Jerez, it’s a war zone, bars and cafés have been springing up and dying there like weeds. We can go see those locations, of course, but if you don’t mind, I’d rather meet early, talk it over and show them a few places within their budget that could actually work. I think there’s a great spot soon clearing up not far from the university…”
Zack’s jaw dropped. He knew his dad would help, but he never expected such enthusiasm. “Woah… Dad, that’s… very useful. I- I’m sure they’d love some professional advice. And if you can help them find a place, that would be rad!” Zack found himself suddenly swarmed by his cats that must have decided an hour between meals was too long a break. “So can we do this on Sunday?”
“Cool! Thanks so much, Dad! You’re the best!”
“The best? I’ll take that. Sounds much better than ‘the beast’.”
Both of them laughed.
* * *
They met with the bikers early on Sunday morning. To Zack’s embarrassment Hector had brought bodyguards with him. The men did not even blink at the gay bikers, but the Pharaohs sure did stare at the bodyguards. Not for long, however, as Hector quickly got in the swing of things, leading the whole assembly through their first potential real estate purchase like an experienced agent. By the time they headed for the second property, the bodyguards were all but invisible.
During the second bar inspection, Zack managed to discreetly ask Barney what this was all about. Barney seemed kind of distracted and brushed the question off. It was weird. But maybe this was how Barney was on the job, on high alert. But why was he on high alert? Was it his dead cat? Zack almost groaned out loud. But seeing as his friends no longer paid attention to the guards and probably thought they were there for Hector, anyway, he did not bring the matter up.
When the Viteris and their bodyguards walked out of the third bar, it was already well past lunchtime. Behind them, back inside, Tamika and Josie had a deed in their hands and a list of phone numbers to the best people in the renovation business. The rest of the bikers were with them, all giddy, thankful and quite speechless.
“Wow, Dad, that was really something!” Junior beamed. “You saved them so much money, I mean you had the owner of the place wound around your finger, and how you called in the paper pushers right in to seal the deal! That was nuts. Thanks so much for the help!” The teen’s stomach rumbled, and he chuckled awkwardly. “Gee, I guess we’re kind of running late for lunch though. I’m sorry, you probably wanted to spend the day with Wyatt.”
“Ah, come on, Junior, I’m glad I could help your friends.” Hector hugged his son by the shoulder.
“Not so close to the bar, Dad! You’re gonna embarrass me.” The teenager escaped the hug, looking back to see if anyone was watching. No one was. It was just him, his dad and the bodyguards who had seen worse.
“This location should work nicely,” Hector mused, as he led the way into a bystreet. They were headed towards the next street, where the limo was parked. “And since they’ll be serving alcohol, the limited parking situation shouldn’t be much of a problem. This area could really use some fresh blood, maybe the new business would-”
Hector turned around. “What did you just say, Bruno?”
Then he froze. Bruno, one of his bodyguards, was pointing a gun at the back of Junior’s head. The boy’s eyes were open wide in surprise. Junior started to turn. Bruno pulled the trigger.
Time seemed to slow. Hector reached for his son, but it was too late. A spray of blood and gore tore through his boy’s forehead, and Junior’s body fell. Hector dashed forward and broke Bruno’s arm even as the bodyguard was trying to point the gun at him. A jaw-breaking punch to the face, and Bruno was down, the gun was in Hector’s hand.
He shot the turncoat a few times, when something slammed into his back. Then again. And again. Hector stumbled. He turned around to see Barney and Gary pointing their guns at him. They fired again, making him stagger.
“Barney,” Hector said. “Why? Why the hell?” He stared into his bodyguard’s, no, his friend’s eyes furiously, searching, trying to see the reason for this. Money? Power? No. It made no sense. Not for Barney. They’d been through so much together, Barney had always been so loyal, and even now, there was no malice in his eyes. They had looked glassy until Hector spoke, but now the man blinked, like he was waking from a dream.
Barney shuddered and stared at the gun in his hands, like he never expected it to be there. Gary shot Hector again. Hector raised Bruno’s gun, but as he shot Gary right between the eyes, Barney fired multiple shots, making Gary’s head explode into a bloody mess.
Hector lowered his gun.
Barney was shaking. Disoriented and miserable, he still pointed his gun at Gary’s body even as he turned to face Hector. “B-boss, no, I- I’m so sorry. She did it. She did it to us- Boss… Oh, no, shit, the kid… Oh no, boss…” Tears appeared in Barney’s eyes. “I’m so sorry! I’m so sorry!” Barney sobbed.
Hector looked down at his suit. Large red blots were crawling over his shirt, right around the scar Wyatt had given him, like a dark red wreath. So many strange pointless betrayals. He felt so tired.
He turned to his son. His only son. His little boy. Dead at sixteen.
Hector fell to his knees and pulled Junior’s body close.
Barney was still apologising, but Hector didn’t hear him. A ringing filled his ears, and the world narrowed down to the mane of Junior’s nappy hair, stained with the flecks of blood and gore. Hector hugged his son. The pain in his chest had nothing to do with the bullets that had gone through it.
“Zack,” Hector whispered on his last breath.
Hector’s body went limp, folded over his dead son.
Barney shook his head violently and lowered his gun.
“No. No, boss, no. Come on, you can’t die. No.” He stepped over to them and checked for pulse, there was none. Barney shook his head. At the corner of his eye he noticed a commotion at the end of the alley they’d come from. His instincts told him to run, so he did.
As his feet carried him further away, his mind was racing in circles. He had no reason to shoot Hector or Zack. He would have died for either of them! Then why did he do it?! Why kill them?
She made him do it. She made them all do it. How? Barney didn’t know. But he knew who she would want dead next, so he had to warn them, he had to save one person at least. What kind of a bodyguard was he?!
Barney kept on running.
”Huh, that’s a bit awkward, isn’t it? He forgot the graffiti.” Ishtar, the temptress, shrugged, watching from the roof as the surviving bodyguard fled. “Well, what can I say… do the thing, Ninshubur.”
Hector’s secretary nodded, then slid down a drainpipe and into the alley, moving weightlessly and quickly like a shadow. She surveyed the carnage for a millisecond, then leapt over the bloody scene of the crime and meticulously sprayed the intended message on one of the bare brick walls. Then, spray can in hand, faster than humanly possible, she ran after Barney.
⚞ ¥ ⚟
“That Viteri guy sure knows how to haggle.” Yen said appreciatively, giving the main room of the bar a wide, admiring look. “I don’t know shit about property prices, but if this isn’t the prime rib of real estate deals, it’s gotta be the fillet mignon.”
Most of the Pharaohs were still wandering through the empty bar, while Josie and Tamika sat together at a table with the filled out paperwork. Both women were teary-eyed, struggling to believe their luck.
“Maybe it’s not so bad,” Yen mused, “to have a rich jailbait kiddo-”
Several loud bangs came from outside. Followed by almost a dozen more. Then quiet.
For a moment nobody moved. Then, as one, the Pharaohs rushed outside.
In the street panicked people were hurrying in all directions — all but one — the alley that led to where the big cheese had parked his car. Yen dashed towards it, then stopped short of the corner of the building, gesturing for the others to wait too.
“Yen, don’t-” Sam hissed.
Yen waved a hand at him, then crouched and looked out from behind the corner.
He saw the Viteris. The older man sitting in a growing pool of blood, slumped over the dead body of his son. Zack’s brains were all over the place.
Yen violently withdrew and pressed his back against the wall, pale as a sheet. In the corner of his eye he caught the others trying to approach.
“No,” he croaked and on shaking legs stood up, blocking their path. “No. They’re- They’re dead.”
Zack’s head exploded in front of his eyes, then as if someone pressed a button on a remote, the pieces flew back together. Then it exploded again into the red cloud-flower thing. The one he had seen in the vision. Yen felt sick to his stomach. His skin felt clammy and cold, he stared at his friends’ terrified faces, but all he saw was Zack getting his brains blown out over and over and over again.
Yen bent over and heaved.
Betty was sitting curled up on one end of the couch, brushing a wig. Wilma half-lay on the other end, eating a TV dinner. A soap opera was on, and Betty only paid attention to it to appreciate the witty commentary Wilma provided. The show was drivel, but Wilma’s comedic talent was a precious thing to waste.
“Oh Jessica, honey,” Wilma addressed the TV again, “if you really want Roland off your case, there’s a very effective cure for your strained marriage. It’s called antifreeze.”
The phone rang. Without looking back at it, Betty grabbed the receiver and pressed it to her ear with her shoulder, while she once more got busy with the wig.
“Betty, it’s Barney.”
“Betty, I just killed the boss!”
Betty stopped brushing the wig and violently waved for Wilma to move closer.
“What do you mean you just killed the boss, Barney?!” she asked loudly.
Now the receiver was between her and Wilma, as both women leaned in close to listen.
“She made me do it. She made us all shoot them. He’s dead, his son is dead. I think she’ll make others kill Wyatt, the boss’ boyfriend-”
“I know who Wyatt is! Who is she?!”
“She’s… She’s…” Barney sounded confused, like he couldn’t quite remember. A pause followed. Then an even more confused “Nina?” and a gunshot. Someone hung up the phone.
Betty and Wilma jumped to their feet.
“Fuck! Where is Brooks?” Wilma asked as she dressed and thrust the guns into her holsters.
“I’ll call the Hindus’ neighbor. If Brooks was at the villa, he’s already dead.” Betty quickly dialed a phone number, then cleared her throat and when the phone call was answered spoke in a shrivelled old woman’s voice. “Hello Mrs. Nelson, it’s Mrs. Rathi. Oh, I’m sorry to bother you, but would you know if my granddaughter is seeing someone again? I have the worst feeling, like she is about to bring dishonor on the family. But I have just called her yesterday, I wouldn’t want to nag at her if it’s nothing… Oh? Oh! So she is! Oh, what a bratty girl, oh thank you Mrs. Nelson! Thank you! Ta-ta!”
Wilma and Betty nodded at each other. This time they rushed out of the flat wearing jeans, sneakers and baggy sports jackets and carrying their emergency bags. They were not coming back.
Xenia sat in her favorite willow, watching the Graystone River flowing lazily ahead. The sun was playing on the water’s surface, but Xenia was mostly shielded from it by the thick foliage. Still, a persistent brightening of the light caught her attention, and she turned to see one bright spot zip across the water towards her. The rusalka sat up at attention. She knew water, and how light behaved when reflecting off of it, and it was no ordinary light.
Xenia jumped to her feet, ran down the branch and dove. She surfaced, catching the bright spot in the water in her cupped hands.
The little light rose out of the water and flew around her several times.
“You’re back!” She grinned.
The light stopped and then moved back and forth pointing in a particular direction.
“You’ve got to go? Then I’ll go with you!”
The light popped up right in front of her face and hovered for a while.
“Alright, so you don’t want me to. Are you sure?”
The light bounced up and down and then shot out towards the opposite bank, splashed onto a glass and concrete building and travelled on, passing for a reflection of the sun. Then it vanished from view. Xenia watched it go and did not try to follow. Even she could not hope to beat the speed of light.
Since Zack and Hector had gone out together to help the Pharaohs, Wyatt decided to use that time to catch up with Hamsi and Abi. He was just updating them on the now seemingly resolved situation with the Persian lawyer, when a strange shimmering light appeared in the room, reflecting around the place and making all their heads turn as they tried to follow it.
“What’s that?” Hamsi looked at it bewildered. “It’s not yours, is it?”
Wyatt shook his head. It most definitely wasn’t. The light encircled the room again, and when they all got to their feet, it rushed across the wall and into the hall, stopping at the door. It swirled there swiftly, over and over and over again.
They stared at it without comprehension. Then there was a noise like claws scraping on the stairs outside, followed by a loud bang on the door like something threw itself on it. Then another bang. The door bulged, then crashed open and two huge wolves rushed through the hall and into the living room. They were much bigger than wolves were supposed to be, and their snarls were too hateful to belong to animals. The bigger one had a big yellow spot on its side.
That was all Wyatt registered before they leapt at him.
He was just standing there dumbstruck when Abhilasha materialized between him and the wolves. She caught both of them mid-jump with her four arms and threw one wolf back into the corridor. The other bit into her shoulder. She tried desperately to open its jaws, while the other wolf got back up and snarled, preparing for another lunge. But the shimmering light flew into its eyes, temporarily blinding it.
Wyatt felt a violent pull and he turned to its source wide-eyed. Hamsi was dragging him back towards the window.
“Quickly,” she urged, “make a small hole in the wall and get out! Use your powers. Find Hector. We’ll hold them off!”
He shook his head. “What’s happening? What are these even?!”
“No questions! Go! Now!” She yelled at him, then spun around and transforming into her Yakshini form, rammed herself into the wolf that had recovered from temporary blindness and tried to lunge at Abhilasha’s throat.
Wyatt forced himself out of his stupor. He was the guardian. Whatever was happening, it was real and it should not have caught him by surprise. Hamsi was right. Somehow this was urgently related to Hector, and he had to go. He turned to the wall. He felt bad leaving Abi and Hamsi like this, but it felt like the right course of action. The little light was stubbornly swirling on the wall right in front of him, seemingly confirming that.
Looking back to reassure himself that his friends could really handle the situation, Wyatt made a part of the wall crumble into sand, until he could squeeze himself through the opening. He looked down into the street, facing a temporary sense of vertigo, then took a deep breath and embraced his inner guardian. He made a street lamp fall apart into golden dust and started to lower himself down on a sandy arc.
Even before he reached the ground, he realized the wolves were not the only ones after him. Shots rang out all around him, and in a panic, Wyatt pulled the paint and the caulking off the wall behind him, creating a sand barrier all around him. When he reached the ground, he partially dispersed it only to see a man pointing a gun straight at his face. The man did not manage to pull the trigger, only because someone else shot him in the head.
Wyatt looked around and to his horror saw another man across the street pointing a gun at him, then turning to point it to his left. Before Wyatt could check what caused such a change of priorities, he noticed a flash of light — very unlike the previous friendly shimmer — and focused his sand on the direction it was coming from. Just in time. He felt a tremendous blast of heat, that made him recoil until his back touched the wall of the building. His sand had turned into solid fulgurite.
The guardian looked up in horror at a shining figure standing on top of a building on the other side of the street. The figure pointed at him. Then staggered, stepping backwards when someone shot it.
“Wyatt, over here!”
Wyatt turned around and saw Wilma waving at him vigorously, hiding behind a parked car. There was a gun in her hand, but she was not pointing it at him. If anything, she must have been the one who shot the guy on the roof. Wyatt ran towards her, turning the fulgurite back to sand and raising it as a wall between him and the rest of the street, then also moving it to protect Wilma as he reached her.
“Shit.” The woman looked at his sand wide-eyed, then focused on him. “Keep that up, however you are doing it, and follow me.” She looked around, ready to shoot any other assailants.
”W-what’s going on?”
“Hector’s dead. Zack too. We’re getting you out of here alive. It’s what they would have wanted.”
”What?! N-no… no, it’s impossible.” It was. It couldn’t have happened. And if it had, he would have felt it, wouldn’t he? The beast was still all around them, he could sense it. Nothing changed, then how come-
“Sorry, they’re gone. But you’re not. So we’ll get you out of Coalport, the Citizens are compromised.”
Shots rang out behind them, but Wyatt’s sand took care of that, and when a man tried to run around the sand, pointing a gun at them, Wilma shot him down. They reached the corner of the street, where Wilma shoved Wyatt into a parked car and climbed in after him. She barely closed the door when the car started moving.
“It’s impossible…” The guardian repeated in a shock. How could it be? He saw Betty’s emotionless eyes in the rear-view mirror, and somehow then he knew that it really was true. Even though the beast around them was still alive, Hector was not. “H-how did it happen?”
Nobody answered him. There were more shots and Wilma pushed him down. Then she fired back, and Wyatt was deafened by the noise. He stuck his head up just a little to see there were two cars following them with people sticking out of the windows, firing at them. It felt like a stupid action movie, only it wasn’t. Hector was dead, and he could be next, but these two were trying to protect him. Wilma fired again and this time shot the driver, the car following them closer swerved out of control and crashed into a parked truck.
“Shit, Brooks, someone really hates your guts!” Wilma said, reloading in a hurry. “This isn’t clean work, they want you dead at all costs.”
That was clear now, but who were these people? Had he been so focused on the Persian lawyer that he failed to notice another threat brewing? “I-I don’t understand…”
“Me neither. Stay down.”
“No…” Wyatt’s eyes shone gold, and he shook his head, resolve taking over. He was the guardian. He was not going to stay down when two mortal women were risking their lives to protect him. Wyatt knelt on the backseat looking out through the windows. He could help. The remaining car was right behind them now. Ocher focused on one of the gunners and forced the guy’s weapon into sand, then ducked. The guardian felt a rush of triumph, but it was short-lived. The man let out an inhumane sound, and Wyatt came back up to look. One glance was enough to realize what he had done. He didn’t turn just his gun into sand, he… h-he’d taken his entire forearm. Wyatt sank down the seat in utter horror, narrowly avoiding more shots coming their way.
“Neat!” Wilma roared. “Can you do it to the rest of them? Wyatt? Come on! That would solve it!”
Wyatt shook his head. He sat there, huddled in the backseat, wide-eyed and terrified. He just cut someone’s limb off… T-they were living beings. He couldn’t target them, he wasn’t a murderer, he just couldn’t.
“At least turn the car to sand!”
Wyatt snapped out of it. They were in danger and that was something he could do. He climbed up the seat shakily and focused on the remaining vehicle.
Its wheels fell apart into sand, stranding the sliding wreck behind.
The chase ended.
Wilma howled with approval. “Keep going Betty, take Highland, it should be empty at this hour!” She ruffled Wyatt’s hair. “We’ll get you out of here yet, Mr. Sandman!”
“H-how did they die?” Wyatt asked her with a choked voice. The reality of this was just starting to sink in. He still couldn’t believe it, he wouldn’t until he saw proof, but he had to know…
“They were shot.”
“Wolf behind us!” Betty shouted.
Wilma and Wyatt turned to look. One of the two wolves from before was rushing through traffic behind them. It was running faster than the surrounding cars. It was still far, but it was gaining on them.
“Eagle eye, Betty!” Wilma whistled. “Time to put Old Yeller down.” She aimed and shot.
She hit, but the wolf barely flinched and didn’t slow down.
“Well, fuck me,” Wilma said and looked at Ocher. “Your turn, or do you not do animals to sand either?”
Ocher struggled with himself. He didn’t want to do this. Killing an animal was no better than killing a man. He felt sick to the bottom of his stomach at the very thought, but he could see the wolf had blood on its muzzle. If it was here now, it meant that it must have killed his friends.
That horrifying thought worked. Breaking through his reservations, with tears of anger in his eyes, the guardian focused his powers on the wolf and willed it into sand.
A cloud of sand rose from the wolf, but it kept running.
Ocher tried again. And again.
Dust cloud after dust cloud lifted from the wolf’s back like smoke, but the beast was not growing any smaller or any slower. He had to change his tactic. Thinking fast, the guardian turned a parked car into sand instead and smacked the wolf with it.
The creature fell behind, and they made a turn.
“Nice!” Wilma praised. “You’re getting the hang of it, Brooks!”
A familiar shimmer caught Wyatt’s attention. It was swirling under the driver’s seat, and Wyatt bowed down on instinct to have a closer look.
The car jerked in that moment, and he face-planted into the seat in front of him.
Two shots rang out at the same time, one in the car, one just outside.
Wilma’s arm holding the gun went limp and fell. There was a wild smile on her face, a red dot on her forehead and a faint spray of blood on the rear window behind her. Something rolled loudly over the roof of the car, then the window and finally fell off.
Wyatt sat up and looked behind. A woman lay on the road behind them. As he watched, she rose to her feet uncannily quickly for someone who just fell off a speeding car, then ran after them even faster than the wolf.
She was gaining on them. There was a huge red blot in the center of her blouse, but that did nothing to stop her. As she approached, Wyatt found her disturbingly familiar, but before he could place it, he heard another shot, and she was knocked back down, spraying blood from her face.
Wyatt turned to see Betty get back in from the window and resume driving. He gaped, then turned around to see the shot woman struggling to get to her feet again. She was still alive. He recognized her… it was Nina, Hector’s secretary.
The guardian’s whole world was shattered as things began chaotically falling into place. The man on the roof with the scorching rays of light… he knew that figure as well. It had been Nate, Hector’s driver.
The real threat had been hiding in plain sight all along, and he had failed to notice it. He failed his job as the guardian completely. The car turned sharply, and Wilma’s dead body leaned on him, illustrating brutally and to the point just how completely.
Wyatt let out a choked yelp, not knowing what to do.
“Stay low,” Betty hissed.
He complied. The little swirling light was still there. Ocher realized that it had saved his life, keeping him out of sight when the crazy secretary landed on the hood of the car. But Wilma had taken the shot meant for him. The shimmer swirled apologetically.
Wyatt managed to lean Wilma’s body over to the other side and peeked out. It seemed there was no one following them anymore. He breathed a sigh of tentative relief. But it was too soon.
The wolf appeared around the corner, skidding as it followed them. Betty floored the gas pedal, and with the horn blaring, swerved into the oncoming lane. Up ahead Wyatt heard the train crossing signal. The little shimmer flew out from the car and towards the train tracks.
He turned and saw the gates were already down. Betty drove past both gates, grazing the one on the other side of the tracks. Wyatt just managed to glimpse the wolf skidding to a halt before it was obscured by the cargo train. The shimmering light was left behind as well, and Wyatt understood then that it had been the messenger of the divines, helping him yet again.
Betty sped on over the empty road as the wolf’s disappointed howl drowned in the blare of the train.
* * *
Wyatt couldn’t tell how long they’ve been driving. His wrist watch was broken, and Betty kept silent as she took them through a maze of rural roads. He was left to himself and his thoughts.
They were the grimmest they had ever been.
It was all lost. His friends, the man he loved and his son. He knew that Hector would be reborn, but Zack, the innocent teenage boy… he was gone, just gone. Tears streamed down Wyatt’s face. His own life lay in ruins, but that didn’t matter yet. Not when he was alive while others were lost forever. Wilma’s dead body rested against the door on the other side of the backseat. She had just one human life, and it ended right here in this car, because of him. He could have saved them all. He could have prevented it. There must have been a way. How did he never notice that enemies were all around?
They drove on and on, and the only thing that lifted his spirits was the sensation of the beast still sprawled around them, even here, way beyond the city limits. At least that was unchanged. He did not fail on a galactic scale, he just failed as much as was humanly possible.
The car finally stopped in a field.
“Stay,” Betty barked and got out. She walked away back toward the road.
Wyatt did as told. There was nowhere to go anyway, except back into his despair-ridden mind. He looked at the dead woman next to him. He knew why he had missed the threat. He had followed one lead and had been satisfied when it led him nowhere. He relaxed instead of staying vigilant. He was too busy being happy, being in love. He got distracted. But it was over now. Hector was dead. There would be no more distractions.
His thoughts were interrupted by the rumble of an engine. He looked into the rearview mirror in terror. There was a pickup truck driving down the dirt road.
Wyatt was about to panic when he noticed it was Betty driving the pickup truck.
She jumped out of the pickup truck, climbed onto the back, rummaged in its cargo bed for a moment. Then she walked over to the car and opened the door on Wilma’s side. She carefully pulled Wilma’s body out of the car.
Wyatt watched her. Betty’s expression remained blank the entire time. She hugged Wilma’s dead body tightly and held it for some thirty seconds, then she carried her to the truck and laid her in the cargo bed.
“Come here.” Betty’s voice was hoarse.
Wyatt cautiously climbed out and went to stand beside her. They looked together at Wilma’s body lying on worn blue tarp inside the rather cluttered cargo bed of the truck. It was much the same as in the car. Even her eyes were still open. Betty did not close them. But she had taken Wilma’s guns and holsters.
“Turn her to sand.”
Wyatt blinked in surprise but did not protest. He did as asked, shakily, still unable to believe that any of this had really happened. The dead woman before them turned into sand all at once, neatly and bloodlessly.
Betty climbed onto the truck, folded the tarp and tied it together with one of the belts lying nearby. Done with that, she went back to the car to fetch her and Wilma’s bags. She opened one of them, pulled out a black wig and threw it at Ocher.
“Wear this. Get in the truck.”
Then she took another wig out as well as a sweater and a skirt and began to change her clothes.
Wyatt faced away from her and did as told, feeling surreal when he put on the wig.
When Betty was done changing, she put the bags into the truck. She walked over to their old car. Wyatt wondered what else she was going to retrieve. She got into it and shut the door. Then she began to scream.
She screamed and cursed and howled. She thrashed around and punched the seats and kicked the dashboard.
Two minutes later Betty got into the driver’s seat of the truck, calm as a tombstone. Her eyes were red, but that was it. She turned the key in the ignition. Her hands did not shake. Her voice did not quiver when she spoke. “Turn that car into sand.”
Wyatt did, silently, then scattered the sand around the field.
She drove them back towards the road. On the way she stopped and pointed at a body in denim and plaid lying slightly obscured by the grass on the side of the road. “Turn him to sand too.”
Wyatt paled. Betty had killed a random man. “Oh my god… N-next time consult me before you go and kill people,” he complained as he got rid of the evidence.
“Okay,” she said. But he didn’t really believe her.
Betty drove onto the road.
So that was it, the guardian thought. New Coalport was done for. His life was too. At least until he could figure out who he was up against and how to deal with them. He had to find Hector again, before they did. But how? The beast was still all around them, but it was silent, sleeping. He thought that as its guardian, he would instinctively know where to go, but he had not even felt Hector die. And now there was no sign, no roadmap. He didn’t even know where to begin.
And then, there were questions. So many questions. What about his parents? Were they going to wind up dead because of him? What about his friends? Were Hamsi and Abi dead already? Would Hunter be? And Ocher didn’t even know what would happen to him if he got offed now while being lucid.
He felt lost, guilty and very alone.
“I will keep you safe,” Betty said. “But you must tell me the truth. All of it.”
⚞ ¥ ⚟
“F-father…” Yen called out and felt the eyes of the entire church on him. He did not want to make a scene, not this time, so he cleared his throat and said a little more clearly. “Father Ivers, I…” — I need you. No, not like that, not in front of the whole church — “I need to talk to you. My friend was killed.”
A few people gasped. If some of the parishioners that weren’t staring at him before were bound to be now. Yen stumbled deeper into the church. He knew he looked like a mess with most of his eyeliner smeared across his face. And he smelled of booze. But he had a good goddamn reason, and they could judge him all they wanted for interrupting the mass, but they would not judge Blaise for stepping aside with him. Not in this context. The murder was going to be frontpage for weeks.
Yen stumbled over his own feet and almost fell, but a woman sitting on a bench nearby caught him and then passed him on to Blaise, who had abandoned the sermon and was already walking towards him. The priest led him towards the altar and then aside through the door on the left. They entered a tidy little storage room with a multitude of wooden cabinets and some hangers with robes. There were a couple of chairs there and Blaise sat Yen into one. Then he stepped out to make arrangements. He came back swiftly and handed Yen a bottle of water from one of the cabinets.
Yen accepted the bottle with shaking hands, then just sat with it, staring in front of himself, spaced out.
Blaise watched him with sadness.
Yen looked up at him incredulously after a moment. “Do you already know?”
“I’ve heard, yes.”
Yen fought back tears and grabbed onto the bottle so hard the plastic creaked. “He was just a kid! I was there. We’d just talked. He was such a nice fucking kid, he didn’t deserve it!” Yen choked, then hugged himself, looking haunted. “I saw it before, I saw him die. In that vision I had after I snorted that stuff. I-” Tears began pouring out of Yen’s eyes.
“If you saw it, then there was nothing to be done. Do not blame yourself for it.”
“No, it’s not that. I- I don’t think I can do this. I can’t be your shaman intern anymore.” Yen smeared the rest of his eyeliner all over his red face. “I can’t. It’s too terrible. I don’t want to know these things. I-” He sobbed. “But I want us to be a family. Please, can we still be a family? Even if I can’t be your student. Please, can we?” Yen cried like a child, hiding his face in his hands and shaking violently. The forgotten plastic bottle fell to the floor and rolled aside.
Blaise came up beside him and embraced him, unafraid of Yen’s ruined make-up staining his vestments. He ran his fingers through the biker’s hair.
“Of course we are still a family. Shush, my son… Of course we are.”
Yen clung to him, rubbing make-up, snot and tears into the priest’s green robe. After sobbing uncontrollably for a while, he calmed down enough to notice the stains, swore and tried to clean Blaise’s robe with the edge of his t-shirt. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry about your robe… and that I can’t do the shaman thing. It’s just too much. I still see Zack’s head exploding whenever I close my eyes.” Yen shuddered. “Thank you. Thanks for having me. I-” Yen looked up at the priest with puffy red eyes. “I- Can I stay? I wanna go home with you. I can wait here or even…” He glanced towards the door.
“Yes, you can even take a seat and listen to the liturgy. Church is after all the perfect place to find solace.” Blaise stroked his hair a final time and let go. “You do not need to be my apprentice. But I do hope you will not just bail on the deliveries overnight. Do it gradually, if you must.”
Yen rubbed the corner of his eye and snorted. “Nah, don’t worry, Dad. I know the tiger balls need to be sold and shipped before their expiration date. I have no problem with being your courier. Just the blatantly supernatural shit is too much. For now.”
Blaise seemed satisfied with that answer.
Yen stood up and gave him a proper hug. Then he picked up the bottle and followed him back into the church proper. One of the parishioners had been reading out passages from the Bible to buy Blaise some time. Father Ivers excused him now and took back over the sermon.
Yen found an empty spot on a bench far in the back and sat down.
He was surprised when the old lady next to him offered him a handkerchief. He was even more surprised when he recognised her as the same old lady he’d antagonized at a funeral mass before. She gave him a sad knowing smile of someone who knew how it was to lose a friend. Yen grew red on the face and spent the rest of the service on his best behavior.
The light that was Luke found Xenia in the same tree where he had first met her. She was waiting for him again like she did back then. She noticed him from across the river, and when he reached her, invited him to sit in the shining fern flower that she was wearing in her hair.
“Imagine how surprised and delighted El will be when you jump out of there!” she snickered.
The little light pulsed happily.
“It’s good to have you back.”
In the middle of nowhere, surrounded by miles upon miles of empty, scorched desert, two cars stood next to each other on the side of a dusty road. Two men stood outside one of the cars. Inside it a woman was resting on the back seat.
“Thank you so much, doc, I can’t believe our luck. We never would have made it to the hospital on time.” The young man shook the old man’s hand vigorously. “Thank you so much!”
“Congratulations on the twins.” The old man smiled amicably. “Two healthy boys. What do you plan to call them?”
The young man grinned, he had an answer ready, but as he opened his mouth to say it, he froze for a split second, then eagerly said, “Hector and Hec-… Zack.”
“Very good.” The doctor nodded.
He let the young father go to his wife and newborn sons. Then he went to his own car and retrieved his gun.
Thank you so much for reading City and the Beast!
Please tell us what you think! <3 Especially if you’ve never told us you’re reading it. We are only aware of a few readers and every comment gives us joy and the much needed inspiration to… write Book 2!
Yes, Book 2 is already in the works. This story will only span two novels. This is not Game of Thrones. XD Just two novels. And a bunch of short stories.
In the meantime, keep an eye on the Side Stories section>> where more side stories related to Book 1 and pre-Book 2 will be appearing.
For new art and updates consult our story blog>>
And, here’s the theme song of the entire book c;
When every color lost its tone
This broken heart you’re not alone
You’d better hide albino clan
The former foe became your friend
Don’t let those losers win again
You’d better run albino man
Our greatest secret never told – the rainbow gold
Cause I look to the east
And I look to the west
And I bless my lucky star, bless my lucky star
I’m invisible, visible
Un-visible, oh oh
So I bow to the priest
And I wake the possessed
And I bless my lucky star, bless my luck star
I’m invisible, visible
Un-visible, oh oh
Some vivid doctor runs the show
God’s livid children stay below
They track you down and crack your code
But there’s a power you possess
You meditate and then fluoresce
You turn the tide and spears corrode
Our greatest secret never told – the rainbow gold
Cause I look to the east
And I look to the west
And I bless my lucky star, bless my lucky star
I’m invisible, visible
Un-visible, oh oh
So I bow to the priest
And I wake the possessed
And I bless my lucky star, bless my luck star
I’m invisible, visible
Un-visible, oh oh