Twil’s wellington boots – silvery grey and well-worn – scuffed to a stop, squelching into the leaf mulch as she raised her nose and sniffed the air.
“Everyone uh … uh, hold on a sec?”
I stumbled to a stop too, leaning on my hiking stick and wincing as my phantom tentacles tried to help halt my momentum. Lozzie bounced on a few paces, then turned and scurried back, peeking over my shoulder.
“She’s got a scent!” Lozzie hissed.
“Is it her?” Raine asked. “How close?”
Twil sniffed again, a series of short sharp inhalations followed by several deeper breaths. She turned this way and that, craned her head around. A subtle change flowed through the set of her shoulders and the manner in which she held herself. Grumpy, sulky, rained-upon Twil fell away, replaced by a wide-alert animal, eyes swivelling and fixing on tiny movements, nose twitching, ears cocked.
“Twil, hey, don’t keep us in the dark,” Raine hissed.
“Shhhh!” Twil hissed back.
The green canopy rustled overhead. A squirrel hopped silently up a nearby tree trunk. The forest floor drummed with intermittent raindrops from the leaves above. My own breathing sounded like a steam engine in my ears.
“Yeah,” Twil eventually hissed through bared teeth. “Gotta be her. Close. Been here in the last … I dunno.” She sniffed deeply again. “Ten minutes? Nothing else smells like that. That’s her. That’s Zheng.”
After our encounter with Zheng’s leftovers, we’d plunged back into the woods, past the meat-stripped, bone-gnawed sheep corpses and the murder of crows eager to resume their carrion meal. The forest had closed around us once again, insulated against the wind, consolidated the thin misty rain into an occasional patter of fat droplets. The sky, visible through breaks in the tree cover, grew gravid with rain, a darker, brooding grey. Raine had unfolded the thin anorak she’d brought along for Lozzie, and I’d convinced Lozzie to wear it over her poncho in case the clouds broke without warning.
But the deluge never came.
At the time Twil picked up Zheng’s scent, we’d been walking for another fifteen or twenty minutes, and discovered the remains of an old path. It was overgrown, almost invisible but for the high ridge up one side, lined by the ragged remnants of fenceposts rotted down to stubs, a few scraps of rusty barbed wire still affixed, all drowned in clusters of spring bluebells. Further up the ridge a line of sharply angled concrete posts jutted from the ground, covered in moss and lichen, untouched for decades. Each post was almost six feet tall.
“Tank traps,” Raine had informed me when she’d seen the curious look on my face, as we’d plodded along. “From the ‘40s.”
“ … you’re joking.”
Raine smiled, delighted to surprise me with something I didn’t know for once. “Nah, serious. That angle? Those concrete sticks were meant to snarl up panzer tracks. This whole area – like, the gap between Manchester and Liverpool, and out toward Sharrowford – this was all crisscrossed with wartime defence lines.” She nodded up at the old concrete posts. “Not worth the work to remove from woodland in the middle of nowhere. Bet if we searched we’d find a couple of old pillboxes or bunkers too.” She shrugged. “Urban explorer types probably have them all mapped out.”
“Yeah,” Twil had chipped in from a few paces ahead. “There’s this old concrete bunker near Brinkwood too. S’pretty cool. Roof fell in when I was a kid though.”
History, both ancient and modern, lurked beneath the surface of this landscape at every turn. Scuff at the ground with a boot, and one would likely turn up Roman coins and Victorian tobacco pipes. We forged along that forgotten track until it dipped to meet the edge of a shallow valley in the woods, with a brook at the bottom, the banks a mess of animal-churned mud and driftwood sticks.
And then Twil had caught Zheng’s scent.
“ … so like … what now?” Twil hissed. She looked to me, then to Raine, for help.
“You’re the hunter, Twil.” Raine grinned. “You’re up.”
“What?! That wasn’t part of the deal, come on. I’ve never hunted a demon before. What if she … I dunno, what if she doesn’t want to be found?”
“Hide and seek!” Lozzie whispered.
“Then you gotta prove you’re the better hunter, right?” Raine said. “You-”
I turned away, cupped my hands around my mouth, and called out at the top of my lungs. “Zheng!”
Raine winced, even past her indulgent smile. Twil growled a grumbly growl. Lozzie danced two paces away from my shoulder and stared around, as if Zheng’s answer might come from any direction.
“It’s me!” I shouted. “I’m not alone, but it’s me! Zheng!”
The woods swallowed my voice, and returned no echoes. Raindrops and wind filled the air.
“Well shit.” Twil gave me a look. “If she doesn’t wanna be found, she’s got plenty of warning now.”
“If she doesn’t want to be found, we’re not going to find her,” I said, watching for movement out in the trees.
“Oh great, thanks,” Twil huffed. “Thanks for the vote of confidence, yeah.”
“That’s not what I meant, I’m sorry, Twil. I wouldn’t insult you, you know that. I mean that I’m here to appeal to her. Not to corner, not to coerce.”
“Huh.” Twil dipped her head. “Alright, I guess. Sorry.”
“Yeah, best refrain from cornering the seven foot killing machine, right?” Raine said. “Trust me, I’ve been there. She’s too fast for you, Twil.”
“Fuck’s sake, why’s everybody ragging on me?”
“She’s not a killing machine,” I said softly. “Zheng’s a person, whatever she was before she came to our reality.”
A moment of silence passed.
“Ahhh, I’m sorry Heather,” Raine said after a beat. “Silly turn of phrase, that’s all. You know me, leaping before I look.”
“It’s okay,” I muttered, feeling my cheeks flush as I watched the woods. “I just … well, it’s not as if you’re wrong. There’s fewer spirits here, I suspect they’re keeping well away from her. The only ones I can see are big enough to make even her think twice.”
I cast a glance sideways, across the tree-choked span of the shallow valley. The only visible spirit stood on the other side, another one of those lorry-sized tar-black things with the three massive hooves. It stood stock-still. Pretending to be a tree, perhaps?
“What does she smell like?” I asked.
“What, Zheng?” Twil blinked at me. “Kinda spicy.”
“Spicy?” My turn to frown at her.
“Yeah. Like blood and iron and … strong? Hot?” Twil grimaced, struggling for for a metaphor. “Mostly human, I guess? Like her body’s human, right? She hasn’t bathed in weeks, so there’s some like, regular stink too. But she’s got a high-meat diet, she’s the biggest carnivore around, and she’s got a higher body temp, so, spicy. Yeah.”
Lozzie cupped her hands around her mouth, and called out into the woods.
“Garch irij baina! Zheeeeng!”
Twil frowned at her. “ … what?”
“Come out come out wherever you are,” Lozzie sung the translation.
“Was that Mongolian again?” I asked. She nodded. “Zheng’s native language.”
Twil squinted. “She doesn’t have a native language, she’s some wibbly-wobbly demon in a meat suit.”
“Where she grew up does matter,” I said gently.
“She ain’t comin’, no matter what language we shout in,” Raine said, and set the tip of her hiking stick a pace ahead. “Might be out of earshot, might be asleep. Might be waiting to see if we can find her. Might not wanna be found.”
Or she might not be thinking like a human being anymore.
I kept that grim hypothesis to myself. Zheng was dangerous, we all knew that, but my gut said she’d never harm me. She’d saved my life, she’d gone out of her way to help me multiple times. Lozzie was our trump card. Zheng had treated her ‘mooncalf’ with a tender reverence I’d thought impossible. Whatever fears Evelyn had about her, Zheng was not going to maul us in a fit of animalistic behaviour. To think in such a way was an insult to the trust she’d previously placed in me.
If all else failed, well, Twil was effectively invincible.
“Heather?” Raine prompted. I snapped back to the moment.
“Um. Yes, we should keep going then,” I forced out. “Please be careful. If she … ” I wet my lips and shrugged. We all knew it, but I couldn’t say it.
Raine nodded. Twil bared her teeth. Lozzie didn’t seem to understand.
“Twil, you move as fast as you need to,” Raine said. “We’ll catch up.”
Twil cracked a wolfish grin. “Fat chance, slowpoke. I shit faster than you run.”
Lozzie snort-giggled at that one.
Despite the banter, we slowed to a crawl. Twil led, sniffing and stalking like a hound on a fox trail, nose in the air, eyes darting back and forth to take in every new line of sight around the bole of each tree. She took each step slow, as if noise might disturb her prey. She’d rarely looked more wolf-like without transformation. Eventually she even flipped her hood down and tucked her curly dark hair into the back of her coat to keep it out of the way, and endured the occasional raindrop. Now and then she paused, head cocked to one side, listening for a pattern in the endless static of rain and leaves. Each time she grit her teeth and shook her head, and resumed the creeping pursuit.
Raine, Lozzie, and I trailed behind. Lozzie stuck close to my side, seemingly impressed by the need for quiet. She wore a serious little frown, lips pursed tight, and moved on exaggerated tiptoes in the leaf-mush. Raine brought up the rear right behind us, head on a swivel, contributing what attention she could.
We left the shallow valley behind, lost the old eroded footpath, and entered an area of the woods marked by several fallen trees. Their root systems lay half-exposed to the air in great ragged masses of woody tendril and crumbly clay, like the open mouths of gigantic mud-beasts, even after years of decay and fungus had turned the fallen trunks spongy and slick.
“S’getting stronger,” Twil hissed over her shoulder. “She’s around here, gotta be.”
As we passed the third such fallen tree, Twil froze mid-step.
Lozzie and I blundered to a halt, clinging awkwardly to each other. I tried to hold my breath, but my sides ached too bad, stiff and sore from all the walking.
Raine froze too. “Twi-”
“Shhh!” Twil stared at a point off in the trees, but I couldn’t see anything except bark and branches and a tangle of holly bush. Twil raised her nose and sniffed the air several times, deep slow breaths. “Reeks of her,” Twil whispered, ultra-quiet, barely a breath. “She’s right nearby or I’m losing my head.”
“You see her?” Raine whispered.
“Fuck, I dunno.” Twil hunched, readying to spring after fleeing prey.
“I’m going to call out to her,” I hissed, then filled my lungs.
Twil bared her teeth. “Don’t-”
Something big and brown and skittish flickered among the trees, bounding away in a sudden startled flinch. Something that had been right in front of me but invisible against the tangled background. I blinked in surprise – and Twil exploded forward.
She went from zero to sprint in an instant, suddenly all wolf all over, her ghostly flesh flowing together as she loped across the forest floor after the bolting prey, kicking up leaves and a spray of loose mud. She sprang with both legs, leapt, and plunged into the holly bushes. The sounds of her feet raced away on the far side, off into the depths of the wood.
Three seconds, and she was gone.
“Was … um,” I stammered. “Was that a … ?”
“Oops!” Lozzie chirped.
Raine was too busy to answer, bent over in laughter with her hands on her knees. I couldn’t keep a smile off my face either, trying to cover my amusement behind one hand.
“What do we do now?” I asked.
“Give her a sec, she’ll come back,” said Raine. “‘Less she’s too embarrassed.”
Twil trudged back through the trees a couple of minutes later, blushing hard, dusting bits of leaf and twig off her coat. Tiny scratches from the holly bushes covered her face and hands, already closing with werewolf healing as she wiped the blood away with a thumb.
“Having fun?” Raine asked, a huge, shit-eating grin on her face.
“Yeah yeah,” Twil grumbled. “I was on a hair-trigger, alright?” She sniffed the air. “Place still stinks of her, she must have been round here a couple ‘o minutes back or something. We gotta be right behind her.”
“Did you catch it?!” Lozzie asked.
“What?” Twil blushed harder. “Nah, ‘course not.”
“Twil, I’m sorry,” I said, “but did you just chase a deer?”
Twil sighed, shoulders slumping.
“We should set you up a track rabbit, like for greyhounds,” Raine said. “Let you get it out of your system.”
“Yeah fuck off,” Twil snapped. “I couldn’t help it.”
“You know,” I said, as an idea occurred to me. “That’s not a bad starting point.”
“What?” Twil frowned at me. “Heather, you’re cool, but you can fuck off too.”
“No no, that’s not what I meant. I mean, Twil, maybe you need somebody to chase around now and again?”
“Heather! Fuck! Shut up!”
Twil blushed even harder, stammering a defence. Lozzie giggled. Raine pretended polite incomprehension. I opened my mouth to expound upon the point as much as propriety would allow.
And Zheng dropped out of the sky.
For a split-second none of us knew what was happening. Too fast, too sudden, too big. Zheng fell as a blur in a rapid leap from tree trunk to tree trunk so she hit the ground at less than leg-breaking velocity. She landed right on top of us, a whirlwind of flapping coat and dead leaves thrown into the air, boots slamming into the mud and shaking us like a beaten drum.
She must have been hiding in the treetops, statue-still, perhaps not even breathing, with the hood of her stolen waxed coat turned up to conceal the dark thatch of her hair.
I shrieked in surprise and flinched so hard I almost fell over. Phantom tentacles rushed to help, to hold me up, and managed only to pierce my sides with convulsive pain. A gasp caught in my throat, but Lozzie caught me, interrupting her own yelp of shock.
Twil’s ghostly wolf-flesh flowed back together, a growl in her throat.
Raine moved to step in front of me, one hand reaching into her coat.
“No, it’s-” I started.
But in the split-second it took me to scream and stumble, Raine and Twil had read her correctly. Zheng straightened in a flicker of motion, seven feet of rippling muscle wrapped in a baggy old jumper and ragged jeans, face hidden deep inside the shadows of her hood. I expected a rumble of greeting, a laugh, a purr, for her to turn to me and call me ‘shaman’.
She whipped around with one hand out, so fast she blurred, and grabbed a fistful of Twil’s coat.
My heart lurched.
Raine drew her pistol.
“Zheng, no!” I screamed.
Zheng lunged and I saw the trajectory her fist would take, where momentum would carry her strike – right into Twil’s skull.
Worst case scenario. Zheng had attacked us on sight. Evelyn was right.
Twil tried to backpedal with a fighting growl in her throat, but she wasn’t fast enough. She lashed out with a clawed hand and missed, snapped at empty air with a snout full of teeth as Zheng bore down on her, towered over her. Raine tried to aim her handgun, barely a split-second of time to draw a bead on Zheng. Everything was going too fast, they all needed to stop, this was a terrible misunderstanding. Zheng was my friend, my ally, I’d freed her, this couldn’t be happening, if only I had time to say something. My flanks shuddered with pain as phantom limbs tried to reach out and stop her, bind her, as instinct told me exactly how to end this. I almost let them, I almost gave in.
But Lozzie was laughing.
Twil slipped in the mud and her feet went out from under her. The giant zombie had her, fist about to crack her skull, ghost-flesh or not.
At the last second, Zheng executed a perfect pirouette and span past Twil. She used the motion to tear Twil’s coat off in one fluid tug, and sent a very confused werewolf tumbling into the mud.
As she spun, I caught a flash of face-ripping, shark-toothed victory grin.
“Fuck, wha-” Twil spluttered.
Zheng landed the twist with a slam of one boot, facing away from us. She threw back her head, let out a roar of laughter, and sprinted for the cover of the woods.
She leapt a fallen log in a blur of coat and boot, and vanished among the trees. A heartbeat later the sounds of her crashing through the undergrowth simply stopped. She’d melted back into the forest. Gone, silent and invisible.
“God fucking- what- what the fuck!?” Twil staggered to her feet, all human once more, a great big slick of mud down her back and bum. Her hoodie was all askew and she tottered off-balance from being spun like a top. “She took my fucking coat! You bitch!”
“It’s the trophy game!” Lozzie chirped, a big smile on her face.
“The what!?” Twil boggled at her.
“Raine, I think you can put that away,” I said, swallowing down the pain in my sides as I forced a deep breath. Raine glanced at me, her handgun still aimed off into the woods where Zheng had vanished. She looked from me, to Twil, to her gun, then lowered the pistol and puffed out a held breath.
“Sorry. Thought she might … you know.”
I nodded. “I know. She won’t. She was laughing.”
“The trophy game,” Lozzie repeated, still braced against my side. “It’s from where she grew up – um, grew … in? Whichever! We played it once, in the dreams, and she won by taking all my clothes!”
Raine and I shared a glance. Lozzie giggled.
“Not like that! It’s a game! Nothing happened after, sillies.”
“She’s fucking shitting with me,” Twil said.
Lozzie shook her head. “No, you have to try to win too.”
“I do hope we’re not all playing this game,” I said. “Twil might be able to endure the cold out here if she gets stripped further, but the rest of us are all a bit more fragile.”
“Speak for yourself,” Raine said.
“Hey!” Twil bristled. “She’s not gonna strip me naked. You hear that, you giant fucking cockhead?” she shouted into the trees. “Try that again and I’ll take your fucking head off!”
“Don’t be a sore loser, Twil.” Raine smirked. “You’re only one point down.”
Twil spread her arms at the dripping canopy. “She took my fucking coat! I’m getting wet here!”
“You have to take it back,” Lozzie chirped.
“Four on one is pretty good odds,” Raine said with a doubtful click of her tongue. “But she got the drop on us real good. We need a better plan of attack. Split up, multiple directions? What do you say, Twil?”
“Fuck her,” Twil grunted.
“More than four on one,” Lozzie said, then turned her head and hooted into the woods.
She hooted, whistled, and clicked in a rapid-fire refrain of non-human language. Raine and Twil both stared at her. They hadn’t heard this before, hadn’t been out in the back garden with us when Lozzie had spoken to the pneuma-somatic life. Lozzie trailed off and waited with an expectant little smile.
“It’s okay, she’s calling for some help,” I said. “I think. Lozzie, do you have plan?”
“Mmhmm! They can be a distraction!”
“Okay, I … um … Lozzie?”
My breath caught in my throat at the approach of the nightmares she’d called from the woods. Two of the lorry-sized black tarry creatures stomped through the trees, their three massive hooves thudding against the ground, audible only to Lozzie and I. A dozen toothless mouths flapped open and closed across their hides. Thick tentacles reared overhead like imitation trees.
Lozzie clicked and whistled in greeting.
I took an involuntary step back, mouth dry. My voice shook. “Lozzie, are you sure these are safe?”
“Heather?” Raine said my name. She raised her handgun again, pointed it at where I was staring. Twil went tense all over, claws of ghostly flesh forming up around her forearms.
“Yeah?” Lozzie blinked at me over her shoulder. “They’re friendly? Of course they’re friendly.”
“Um … ” My guts clenched up as the creatures drew closer. They towered over us, at least eleven or twelve feet tall from hoof to tentacle-base, perhaps another ten feet of tentacle above that. I heard a faint whispering on the edge of my consciousness, as if those sucking mouths were hissing foul secrets into the air.
A deep throb of pain passed through my flanks. Phantom limbs attempted to uncoil, to throw up a warning display. I winced and curled up, free hand clamped to my side.
Both the nightmare things stopped dead. Despite the lack of eyes or other visible sensory organs, I had the sudden impression both spirits were looking right at me.
And they did not like what they saw.
“They’re fine!” Lozzie chirped, and skipped right up to the pneuma-somatic blobs, a tiny scrap of humanity next to their tarry bulk. “Fine fine fine! Here-” and she exploded once more into a cacophony of little hoots and whistles at them, waving her arms about.
“The fuck is she doing?” Twil hissed, looking everywhere but seeing nothing.
“Enlisting-” I hissed, and had to close my eyes for a second to fight down my need for territorial display. “Enlisting help. Raine, put the gun away. You can’t shoot something that’s not made of matter. And they’re more afraid of me than I am of them.”
“Right,” Raine said. “Right you are, boss.”
Lozzie finished her rapid-fire explanation, and I opened my eyes to see the two giant monsters stalking off into the woods again, one going left and the other right. Lozzie turned to me.
“They’re going to flush her out for us!” she chirped. “Or get round behind, if we get her first.”
“Like beaters for pheasants,” Raine said. “Smart.”
“What, invisible monsters are gonna scare her?” Twil boggled. “I am like, the only sane one here?”
“Zheng can see spirits,” I said. “Praem can too. Good plan, Lozzie, thank you.”
Lozzie beamed with pride. I made a mental note, she need praise, she needed encouragement. She needed something to set her mind to. She was intelligent and resourceful and a friend to anything she wanted. She deserved better than being cooped up and direction-less.
“Then we best get moving before these invisible lads get too far ahead, right?” Twil asked, already setting off the way Zheng had escaped. “I’m gonna get my fucking coat back if I have to fight her myself.”
The next twenty minutes dissolved into a farce.
We simply could not catch Zheng. She ran rings around us. Even with the somewhat dubious help of Lozzie’s friendly pneuma-somatic monsters, Zheng taunted us and evaded us with all the expertize of a chimpanzee in the jungle treetops.
The spirits did indeed flush her out, force her to move before she could surprise us, but she could relocate so fast it hardly mattered. The great stomping monsters were too slow to catch her themselves, only able to alert us when Lozzie or I could see them directly, their tentacles grasping upward at the bole of whatever tree Zheng was hiding in, or stomping toward a clutch of bush or holly where she slunk and crept at ground level. But she evaded them every time, ran off into another part of the woods, and taunted us with laughing roars of good-natured defeat as she was found.
We couldn’t keep up. Twil ranged ahead at speed, all wolf for minutes at a time, racing across the carpet of leaves, almost fast enough to catch Zheng but eluded and misdirected at every turn. Once she even slammed face-first into a tree like in a classic cartoon, led blind through a stand of fern while Zheng escaped.
Twice Twil attempted to climb after her, but Zheng simply leapt to another tree, far beyond the werewolf’s abilities.
Lozzie and I were both out of breath. Raine had little to contribute except her eyesight. This wasn’t a fight, not a real one.
She hit us four more times, dropping from a tree, stepping out from a concealed hiding spot, lurking in the undergrowth. She stole Raine’s hiking stick, tugged on Lozzie’s braid, and in a gesture of heart-stopping intimacy, managed to place one massive hand around the back of my neck for a full three seconds, purring with animal affection.
I’d blushed hard, a quiver in my throat and belly as she’d vaulted away that time. Twil had sailed through empty air in a frustrated attempt to tackle her, landing hard in the mud and leaves.
“Fuck! Give me back my fucking coat!”
“She’s counting coup,” Raine said after that last successful attack, grinning with approval despite the way she hovered protectively at my shoulder. “And she’s damn good at it.”
“Counting what?” Twil asked through a snout of too many teeth as she got up, covered in mud and twigs.
“Counting coup. American Indian thing, I think. Rather than fight a battle, you prove your bravery by touching the enemy with your hand, and escaping unscathed. Lots of variations on it. She’s proving a point to us.”
“No,” I said, my mouth dry with embarrassed excitement.
“No?” Raine raised an eyebrow.
“She’s having fun!” Lozzie said.
“Yes.” I nodded. “Proving the point is secondary. The way she keeps laughing, this is pure elation for her. She loves a good fight, I think. She’s not trying to humiliate us. She wants a challenge.”
“Hmmmmm.” Raine smiled tight, narrowed her eyes, and glanced up at the trees. “We’re not putting up much of a fight so far. Hate to lose five-nil, might disappoint our big friend.”
“Fuck her, I almost got her that time!” said Twil.
“Yes, Twil. You almost did,” I muttered, my mind suddenly turning the concepts over, looking at the game from a different angle. “But you probably won’t.”
“We’ve tried a chase, and cornering her doesn’t work,” Raine said. “She’s too fast for that, and there’s too many escape routes.”
“I’m going to go talk to her,” I said.
Raine shook her head. “Nah, I doubt she’ll talk until the … ‘game’? Game. Until the game is done and-”
“No, I mean, I’m going to talk to her.”
Raine glanced at me, eyebrows raised, and grinned slowly. “Heather, Heather, I see a plan in those beautiful eyes. Go on?”
I wet my lips, the idea still forming as I spoke. “Lozzie, call your- our friends back here. Are they clever enough to follow very specific instructions?”
“Twil, can you move through the forest without making too much noise?” I asked.
“Sure, yeah. I mean, good enough to fool like, a bird or a rabbit. Why?”
“Okay then, good. Here’s how we’re going to catch Zheng.” An unfamiliar kind of smile teased at the corners of my mouth. I felt like I was doing something deliciously naughty. A thrill of excitement thrummed inside my chest.
Raine must have read the look on my face. “Heather? This one’s special, isn’t it?”
“I’m going to be the bait,” I said. “And the hook.”
Zheng was too smart to simply blunder into a trap, and too fast to be caught by one. She could not be ambushed or blindsided, hoodwinked or misled. She was a hunter at heart – perhaps that’s what she’d been before flesh, out in the abyss where she’d been born. Not only was she capable of terrible violence, but she had a long lifetime of practice behind her, enslaved or otherwise. Twil might be good at this, but Zheng had been doing this for decades. Or centuries.
So we made our intentions obvious, we broadcast what we were doing, loud and clear. Stupid monkeys trying to catch a demon.
And then, inside that first trap, I set a second.
One that did not rely on speed, or cleverness, or misdirection, but on curious desire.
“Shaman,” Zheng rumbled. A shark-toothed grin opened inside the shadows of her hood.
“Zheng,” I sighed. “Finally. You certainly took your time.”
I shifted my footing to ease sore knees, leaning on the hiking stick, shivering inside my coat and hoodie. I’d been standing alone for too long in this little clearing, beneath a thinner patch of green canopy, waiting for Zheng to take the bait.
She grinned wider. Occasional raindrops pattered off her hood. I couldn’t see her eyes.
“Here to surrender?” she purred. “Lose the chaperone, shaman.”
“It’s … hardly that.”
One of the nightmare pneuma-somatic creatures stood just behind me, close enough to make my skin crawl. A subliminal whispering noise filled the edges of my hearing, emitted from those slopping, toothless mouths. I’d steadfastly refused to think about it for the last ten minutes, since the others had withdrawn from the clearing and left me behind. From Zheng’s perspective I stood framed and dwarfed by a true monster. A bodyguard.
But not Raine. The real trap wouldn’t work, if Raine was by my side.
It was working so far. Zheng kept her distance at the clearing’s edge, beyond the reach of the nightmare’s tentacles.
“Oh?” Zheng tilted her head and rumbled a question. “No? Isn’t it to make sure I don’t-”
“So you don’t snatch me off my feet and carry me off into the woods to have your way with me, yes, that’s why it’s here,” I lied. I even blushed, though I didn’t need to fake that part. “I just want to talk to you.”
Zheng threw her head back and laughed.
“Shaman, I am winning. What’s to discuss, except terms of surrender?” Her huge tongue slid from between her teeth and into the light, inch after inch, a thick pink rope of muscle – and then whipped back. Her teeth closed with a clack. “Or this is a badly planned trap. You monkeys are always at your worst when you think you’re being clever.” Her grin faltered suddenly, as if the thought had dredged up bad memories. “Blunt, direct, yes. That’s how you’d win this, but you don’t have spears and nets. You don’t even have mounts.”
“I disagree,” I said, and frowned for real. “Zheng, I’m not going to bludgeon you into submission. I would never do that. I’ll play by the rules.”
“Bah,” Zheng growled. “You monkeys are so bad at it. I can already hear them now, trying to creep through this excuse of a forest.” She nodded out at the clearing, and I made a show of keeping my expression neutral. “The kharankhui zaluu make so much noise on approach I could hunt them blind. The laangren, she is fast and strong but inexperienced. Your lover, she … ” Zheng rumbled as she trailed off, then seemed to sigh. “She is as smart as me, but her gun fires only lead.”
“What about Lozzie?” I asked. Buy time, Heather, keep her talking.
“My mooncalf?” Zheng chuckled. “If I was asleep, she would be deadly. I am not. None of you can catch me, shaman.”
“We’re not trying to corner you, or ambush you. I promise. Zheng, I promise.”
Zheng purred in thought. I couldn’t see her eyes, but I felt the narrowing of her attention. “You’re not lying, shaman. How can that not be a lie?”
“I am telling the absolute truth, in technical terms yes. There is a trap here but it’s not a surprise. You can see it right now. Because I respect you, I respect your intelligence, you’re too clever to be caught in a simple ruse, and-” I swallowed. Raine might be close enough to hear now, but she already knew this, and it was a vital part of the plan. Go for the low blow.
“And because I’m wildly attracted to you,” I finished.
Zheng moved her head one way, then the other, a predator sizing up a curious new animal, unsure if it was prey or danger. “What are you up to?” she purred. “Clearly I’m meant to try to snatch you, that’s what the zaluu behind you is for. But I don’t see the catch.”
“There is no hidden trap here.” I spoke the words I’d rehearsed, trying to fit them to the situation, my heart pounding in my chest – why? This wasn’t a life or death situation. It was a game. Zheng wasn’t going to kill or eat any of us. Why did it matter so much?
Because, as I realised in that moment, I craved her approval.
I craved the approval of a predatory, cannibalistic demon. My body, the abyssal thing I’d brought back, craved her kinship and her understanding. Inside, I sighed.
“There’s only me,” I continued, voice shaking. At least it helped the act. “Zheng, please, I really want to talk you, but I realise the game has to end first. We’re very close, and I am about to win.”
Zheng looked off to the left, rolling her shoulders as a wave of readying tension flowed through her massive frame.
“The other zaluu is circling that way. Your lover skulks toward us from there,” she nodded past me, “along with my mooncalf, which means the laangren is over there somewhere,” she gestured off to the right. “I have at most ten or fifteen seconds before I am surrounded, but I can move in the last two and still escape. In the last four I can take you with me, zaluu at your back or not.” She grinned at me again with those shark’s teeth, and flickered her huge tongue out.
“Please, do try,” I said, in a pitch-perfect polite voice, despite the flush in my cheeks.
Eyes beneath her hood glinted in the shadow. “But you overflow with confidence, shaman. You know you are about to win. You are so certain I will try to take you, but I do not see the catch, I do not see the winning play.”
I had her now, she’d taken the real bait. Had to keep her on the line.
“There is no hidden catch, it’s right here in plain sight,” I said, and allowed myself a smile which burst, uncontrolled, into a grin. I couldn’t keep it off my face. I’d rarely felt so excited. “I am about to outwit you, and I must admit that I am rather enjoying it. Oh dear.”
Zheng rumbled low in her throat, anger or approval or arousal, all three mixed into a heady cocktail that made my bowels and my groin both quiver. A chuckle ran beneath the growl. She shifted her footing, ready to spring into action, or up into the trees, to make good on her boast of speed.
“Of course, maybe I secretly want you to snatch me,” I said quickly. Two seconds was all we needed – I saw Twil in full wolf form slink out of hiding to Zheng’s rear. “Maybe this is all a ruse, a convenient excuse to offer myself up like a goat tied to a stake. Don’t you want to try, Zheng?”
Zheng froze for a split second, a heartbeat of doubt. She’d waited too long, fascinated by me and my ruse.
Better than I’d ever hoped for.
Twil took the cue. She let out a deep, low, warning growl and rushed at Zheng, kicking up leaves and mud in a headlong charge with no hope of contact. Raine burst into the clearing at full sprint a moment later, from behind me, Lozzie trailing after and almost tumbling over, a mad laugh on her lips. The second of Lozzie’s nightmare spirits bumbled through the trees to the left, exactly as Zheng had predicted.
Zheng span toward Twil like a matador preparing to twist away from a bull.
She couldn’t jink left, into the path of the kharankhui zaluu, and Raine was about to block her right.
She had three choices – back away toward me, avoid Twil and then run forward, or leap up into the trees. The former would simply reel her in further, the latter two would give me the opening I needed.
Twil flew right past Zheng’s dodge, a bundle of incoherent limbs and gnashing teeth as she overshot Zheng and skidded into the mud. Zheng laughed and terminated her evasive spin. She slammed her boot down into the leaves and mud, to give her the instant leverage to push off, to sprint into the depths of the woods.
And my hiking stick slammed against the back of Zheng’s head.
Thwack, went the crack of plastic.
Zheng was so surprised she actually flinched, ducking her head and jerking around to stare at me, wide eyed. I smiled up at her through the awful spasms of pain in my sides, clutching at the way my phantom limbs had tried to uncoil and help, had tried to restrain Zheng for me as I’d walked toward her.
As she’d turned to Twil, I’d hurried forward, unnoticed and unaccounted for amid the werewolves and heavily armed sociopaths and giant tentacle beasts. Scrawny little Heather had not been not a factor in Zheng’s threat calculations.
Raine jogged up and slipped an arm under my shoulders, helped me stand straight. “Woah, Heather, deep breaths, deep breaths.”
I shuddered and winced as the pain in my sides slowly ratcheted down. Zheng stared at me. Twil picked herself up with an angry snarl. The pair of nightmarish spirits lingered on the edge of the clearing, intelligent enough to understand that the game was over.
Lozzie threw her arms up in the air and shouted. “Score!”
“Shaman,” Zheng breathed in savage awe, one hand on her head where I’d landed the blow.
“I’m the one you have to watch out for, Zheng,” I managed to croak, my chest still pounding with victory. “Me.”
A heartbeat of wild-eye stare – and Zheng burst out laughing. She threw her head back and her hood finally fell away to reveal that beautiful red-chocolate skin and thatch of dark hair, greasy and matted. Her sharp eyes glittered with amusement. She roared with belly-laughter, grinned at me, and finally bowed her head.
“On pure points I still win,” she rumbled. “But I concede moral victory. A point to you monkeys. Well done, shaman.”
“That’s right, you shit!” Twil snapped. “Now give back my fucking coat!”
“Victory!” Lozzie chirped. Surprising nobody, she ran right up to Zheng and tackled her with a hug around the middle. Zheng took it like she was made of reinforced concrete, and placed one huge hand on Lozzie’s head.
“You fell for the tree trick, laangren,” she rumbled. “If you want your spoils returned, you shall have to win them.”
“Oh yeah?” Twil bristled, and raised her snout of ghostly wolf-flesh. “You wanna go, one on one? No running off again, you-”
“Zheng, give her coat back,” I sighed, my high already fading. “Please. And what it is with you and falling long distances? You’re such a show-off.”
“Jumping, shaman. Not falling.” Zheng dug Twil’s rolled up coat out from inside her own. “Why the pain, shaman?”
“Invisible tentacles,” Raine answered for me. I sighed and rolled my eyes.
Zheng cocked an eyebrow at me, a silent question.
“I’ve had some … experiences,” I said. “Your advice produced an unexpected result. I’ll tell you all about it, later. Twil’s coat, please?”
Zheng grunted and tossed the coat to Twil, who caught it in one claw – one claw rapidly melting back into a human hand. Twil’s normal face emerged as the rest of her transformation fell away. She frowned, wrinkled her nose, and immediately held the coat out at arm’s length.
“Ugh, this reeks, and not just of your dinner. Do you not bathe or what?”
Zheng shrugged. “It is winter. It is cold.”
“You’re afraid of a little cold?” Twil snorted at her.
Lozzie, who was busy with her face smooshed into Zheng’s side, came up for air. “She does stink. Pongy Zheng.”
“Mooncalf?” Zheng rumbled.
“It’s true,” Lozzie chirped.
Zheng fished Raine’s stolen hiking stick – retracted into its compact form – out of her pocket, and offered it back to Raine. I looked down at my own stick, sadly buckled in the middle now.
“Cheers, big girl.” Raine winked at her. “So how’d we do? Enough of a challenge?”
“Tolerable,” Zheng purred.
“What was all that, anyway?” Twil asked, trying to shake the smell of dead sheep and body odour and forest out of her coat. “Why the hell run us around like that?”
“You walked into my woods.”
“Your woods?” Twil squinted at her.
Zheng shrugged. “I am the scariest thing here. You monkeys don’t count, not here.”
“Where do you get off on calling us monkeys anyway, huh? Look at you, leaping around in the trees.”
Zheng grinned at her. “You’ve forgotten how to do it, laangren. You enjoyed it too.”
“Where’d you pick that skill up?” Raine asked. Zheng blinked once at her, slowly.
“Another forest,” she rumbled.
“You know, if you came home, you could have a hot bath whenever you like,” I said. Zheng levelled a curious gaze at me, and her smoldering amusement turned dark.
For her, that word contained entire philosophies.
“Yeah,” Twil muttered under her breath. “You don’t have to live like a hobo-demon, you know?”
“My home. Our home,” I said. “Zheng, I’m dying to talk to you, you must know that. About all sorts of things. And I do want you to come home with us. With me. I’m not saying you’re not at home in the woods, but there’s always a place for you. Can we talk now? Surely we’ve won that right, if we could take a point off you.”
Zheng stared at me for a long, brooding moment, with no smile. A tremor of animal fear shot through my belly, drawn tight by her predatory regard.
“You took a point off me, shaman. You lead.”
“She’s good at it, ain’t she?” Raine beamed. Zheng didn’t bother to look at her – or wouldn’t look at her.
“Then, please don’t run off again,” I said. “Can we go somewhere and-”
“We can talk.”
“You and I, shaman,” Zheng purred. She indicated the others with a jerk of her chin, Raine, Twil, even Lozzie. “You and I, alone.”