Authors: Laura Thalassa,Dan Rix
Table of Contents
The clothes I
wore felt strange. Strange and coarse.
I forced myself to avoid fidgeting in them as I crossed the parking lot to the small, fairly nondescript building labeled American Blood Bank.
A native wouldn’t fidget in their clothes
, I reminded myself. They all looked so sure of themselves. Even the ones who you could tell wanted to be someone else. They still moved with surety.
I stopped myself from grimacing as I passed the trash bins tucked away behind the building. Everything about this place grated. The smells, the sounds, but most of all, the sights.
I tightened my grip on the satchel I carried.
This place was foreign to me, but I was also foreign to this place. The natives sensed that the longer their attention focused on me. These clever humans missed nothing.
I cast my own gaze above me. It was still very early, the sky a deep blue. Too early for work. I checked the clock I wore on my wrist, just to be sure.
The first employee didn’t get in until 6:30, which gave me roughly an hour, for whatever good that knowledge was worth. Counting time was still a relatively new concept to me, but humans did it, so I had to as well.
The rear door of the building was lit, I noticed with disappointment. Last time I’d been here I’d knocked the light out. People had such absurd fears of the dark. Then again, things like me lived in it, and I was something to fear.
I tried the back door of the building.
Locked. Not surprising.
There was a simple enough way to enter. Simple and forbidden because it was inexplicable to the natives. That’s what had gotten others like me killed in the past. The inexplicability of our ways. They were breadcrumbs for hungry humans to follow. I wasn’t dying today, so the simple way was out.
I slid my hand into my pocket and pulled out the lock picks I carried with me whenever I came here. I fitted them through the slot in the door knob, angling and twisting them like I learned to do long ago. I heard the lock tumble. Pocketing the picks, I entered.
Ignoring the light switch next to me, I headed up the dark hallway to the main room at the back of the building, where a large “L” shaped desk took up most of the space. I moved behind it, eyeing the computer that faced me.
Opening a shallow drawer, I reached inside and drew out the metal key I was looking for. Crossing to the other side of the room, I used this key to unlock another drawer. The inanity of it all.
Rolling the drawer open, I peered inside. A handful of plastic, rectangular cards waited for me. All served the same purpose—unlocking yet another room I needed access into. So many keys when only one was necessary. The only difference between them were the names printed on each.
The natives were careful, crafty, I’d always been told. They thought in ways I didn’t and likely never would. But this felt less careful and crafty than it did redundant and impractical.
Their world, their rules.
Picking one at random, I pocketed the metal key and the plastic one, then headed down the hall, my shoes squeaking against the floor.
This place always raised the hair on my arms. It smelled unnatural—a place where life came to rot.
I tugged at my pants. Seams and zippers and buttons. Odd, all of it.
, I reminded myself.
I had to be cautious, take no chances.
In and out.
I stopped in front of a thick metal door and held the plastic card to a box next to it. A light blinked green, and the door unlatched, venting chilled air that made me shiver. I slipped inside and stared.
From wall to wall, nearly floor to ceiling were rows upon rows of blood. My fingers twitched at the sight of it all.
I set my satchel down on the ground. And then, one by one, I began to remove the bags of blood.
I despised caves.
Try wedging your body down half a mile of the blackest, putridest, most kinked-up asshole of a crawlspace you can imagine.
Of course the anomaly had to be down here.
It couldn’t have been in a meadow or on a beach or on
of a mountain.
No. It had to be half a mile under it.
Arms pinned beneath me, I crawled deeper into the cave, toiling under the weight of my gear. The tiny space amplified the clinking of my clips, my raspy breath, the scuff of my gear on rock. Deep breath. Focus on the breath.
In . . . out . . . in . . .
Silty mud splashed into my mouth and I coughed at the acrid tang. As I did so, my helmet banged the ceiling, reminding me I had zero wiggle room.
“Fuck you, cave.” I muscled another foot, teeth gritted against a wave of sickening claustrophobia.
Not a good idea. But I trusted
with what I was about to uncover.
The cave walls shrank around me until they cut into my shoulders, halting my progress.
Wedged in like a cork.
The light from my headlamp illuminated a small, jagged opening to pitch blackness, out of which whistled cold, dank air. Breathing heavily, I computed just what inhuman contortion I would need to adopt to fit, and I didn’t like it.
At least I liked the cold.
Topside, the West Virginia backcountry around White Sulfur Springs would be dripping with the muggy late-summer heat.
I unclipped my pack, so I could pull it through after me, and angled my shoulders sideways to squeeze through the chokepoint. It smelled different on the other side. Colder, more cavernous, a hint of ash lurking under the wet tang of corroded minerals. Instinctively, my nose wrinkled.
The echo of my breath changed too, perking my inner ear. The sound of wide open space.
I couldn’t crane my neck far enough for my headlamp to illuminate the other side, so I squeezed my flashlight through and panned it forward.
A glassy pool of water gaped below me, its banks overgrown with lumpy stalagmites. They glittered in the light, their ghostly shadows dancing around the walls of a large cavern.
This was the spot.
I could feel it. The way the hairs stood up on my forearms.
Sliding the rest of the way through, I lowered myself down among the stalagmites, now careful to stay quiet. Drips echoed in the darkness, but nothing else sounded, save for the quiet moan of air rising from deep in the earth, like the cave itself was breathing.
Place gave me the creeps.
With the flashlight off, I flipped the thermal imaging scope down over one eye, and my palm went to the Glock at my hip.
I surveyed the cavern through the lens, my surroundings cast in dim shades of blue.
Nothing else living down here.
If there was, its body heat would have stood out as bright white.
The tension in my shoulders relaxed. Slowly, my hand inched away from the holster. Could never be too careful.
Time to get to work.
I dragged my pack through the hole. Weighed down with shovels, pickaxes, and dynamite, it landed with a crunch at my feet, probably crushing millennia-old limestone formations which would never grow back.
Bummer. But I didn’t give a rat’s ass about the minerals.
I was here for something else entirely.
From the pack, I slid out a thin metal equipment case and opened it on a nearby stalagmite. Inside, set into a foam pad, thirty nickel-sized, quartz oscillators all displayed
on their faces. They were essentially nothing more than fancy stopwatches.
The only difference was these cost several grand.
They were wired to each other, so they could all be started and stopped at the same exact time. This would matter.
I made my way around the cave, planting each one in a rough grid pattern. I even tossed a couple into the pool for good measure—they were waterproof, so they’d be fine. For this first measurement, I just wanted to get a general idea of the anomaly’s location.
I could zero in on it later.
As I moved around the pool’s milky, crystallized banks, shadows grew and shrank behind me, like figures ducking out of view. Freaked me the hell out. My hackles stayed up the whole time.
Behind me, the sound of a stone skittering down into the cave broke the silence. The chamber’s echo made it sound like an avalanche.
I spun around and leveled my gun at the cave’s exit, my normally cool pulse now quickening.
Keeping one eye on my exit, I went back to placing oscillators.
Once I’d placed them all, I began the experiment.
Back at the case, I clicked on the master switch that started all the timers simultaneously. A green indicator light told me they were perfectly synchronized at the time of starting.
Then I waited.
A minute and a half.
While thirty tiny clocks did my work for me.
After exactly ninety seconds, the master timer in my hands automatically sent a signal to each of the thirty others spread about the cavern, telling them all to stop at the same time.
Nothing but a fancy stopwatch.
I began reeling in my net of oscillators. As expected, the first one displayed ninety seconds exactly—90:00.
No surprises there.
I checked the second one.
I checked the third one, which had recorded at the edge of the pool. Ninety seconds exactly.
I moved on to the fourth, drawing it out of the center of the pool. The readout was identical to the three before it.
So far, time was being well behaved.
I circled to the far bank and checked the fifth in line, which had come to rest upside-down at the foot of a bulbous stalagmite. Flipping it over, I leveled the tiny screen under my flashlight.
My nostrils flared.
not allowed,” I muttered.
Here, time was being very naughty.
I walked into
my apartment, dropping my satchel onto the couch. It made a sloshing noise as the bagged blood inside it bounced.
Rolling my shoulders, I moved to my room and began to change, first untying the laces of the men’s work boots I wore. Then the scratchy socks, followed by the large, coarse jeans. As I undressed, I felt my hair thicken and grow, prickling my scalp and tickling the skin of my back as it lengthened, several dark locks draping themselves over my shoulders. My limbs shrank and narrowed, becoming rounder, more feminine.
My true form.
Even in my natural skin, I was nearly indistinguishable from the natives. All but the eyes. They were just a smidge too violet to pass for human.
Carefully I placed the clothes in my bedroom closet and slipped the men’s work boots next to a pair of child’s sneakers. I exchanged the native’s clothes for my own, sighing as I dragged my formfitting, full-body suit over my hips, then my breasts, wiggling a little as I pulled it up. I felt the stretchy material cinch around my waist like a second skin as I threaded my arms through the long sleeves. I slid on my boots and grabbed my sheathed daggers, attaching the weapons to my pants. The familiar weight felt comfortable against my outer thighs.
Now that I was back in my own skin and clothes, I felt better, but not much. I needed to get back home. My people were counting on me.
Returning to the living room, I opened my satchel.
One by one I lifted the blood bags out of it and spread them across the couch, counting the number I had taken. Twenty-six. Not enough for my people. Not nearly. But still enough to go noticed by the blood bank.
The natives would ask questions.
So many, many questions. They used inquiry the way my people used magic. And they got results.
Those cold, calculating creatures would somehow find me if I lingered long enough.
I swallowed. I’d have to find a different blood bank after this. Hopefully I wouldn’t have to move my outpost from this city. It was hard enough to set up the first time. I couldn’t imagine doing what others of my kind had—hopping from place to place, living as ex-patriots in this world. Trying to get by as a human.
We weren’t, and we never would be. Thank goodness.
I made my way over to the map of the United States that hung on the far wall. I searched the eastern side of it, looking for the city I was currently in.
Home to nearly 100,000 humans. In this single city alone there were a hundred times more natives than there were of my entire race.
My dying race.
I packed up the blood. From the front closet of my apartment I grabbed a human hoodie and tried not to shudder as I slipped it on. Then, hauling the satchel over my shoulder, I glanced at the map once more.
With my finger, I followed the crooked highway that led from this city a deceptively short distance to the tiny human town.
White Sulfur Springs.
I stared at
the digits on the timer, my scalp bristling.
At the foot of this stalagmite, only eighty-seven seconds had elapsed—
three seconds less
than had elapsed everywhere else in the cave.
Three seconds less. Which meant that, in this particular location, time moved
Definitely not allowed.
This was the spot. The location of the anomaly.
Slowly, my gaze gravitated up the stalagmite, up the hideous, lumpy growth to where it fused with a glistening stalactite hanging from the ceiling, forming a natural pillar. I was no geologist, but the thing looked ancient.
Whatever lay entombed in the limestone, it had been here for hundreds of thousands of years.
Now how to unearth it . . .
I reached for one of my explosives, then paused. Thinking it through, the dynamite tactic seemed suicidal. If I knocked out the pillar, it would destabilize the entire cavern, probably cause the whole thing to collapse on my idiot face.
Bright idea, Asher . . . detonating explosives in a confined space under eight trillion tons of precariously balanced rock.
Pickaxe and shovel then.
But first, I read the times off the rest of my oscillators.
Out of the thirty, four more registered time anomalies, also near prominent stalagmites. Pockets of space where time passed a little slower. Without synchronized clocks, you wouldn’t notice.
I took one step out between the columns, and a wave of vertigo nearly made me upchuck.
you wouldn’t notice.
Feeling seasick, I had to brace myself on one of the spires. Up close, they reeked of ash, that smell I had grown to despise. I recoiled with a grimace.
There were five anomalous stalagmites in total.
Five of the oldest, baddest, foulest looking stalagmites in the cave.
With a tape measure, I took the distance between them.
They formed the corners of a perfect pentagon.
Or, more precisely, the five corners of a star. A pentagram.
Truth was, I didn’t give much of a fuck what shape they made. For all I cared, they could make Mickey Mouse ears.
I didn’t come here to play connect-the-dots.
I fetched my pickaxe and took a good, hard swing at the base of the first stalagmite. Rock shards splintered off, ricocheting between the other spires.
I pried out a chunk of limestone with the flat end of the axe, then let it fly again. More fragments sprayed off into the darkness.
Pausing to wipe my damp forehead, I slid out of my breast pocket the dog-eared photo of my dead wife, age twenty-six, blonde and blue-eyed and fucking gorgeous, and kissed it. “This is for you, Nikki.”
It was all for her, really.
I swung again, yelling this time, and kept swinging until mineral dust stung my nostrils, until icy sweat dripped off my nose, until my lungs heaved from exertion, until the pillar of limestone at last crumbled open at my feet, exposing something that had absolutely no earthly business being inside a stalagmite in a cave that no human had ever set foot in before today.
I knelt and peered at it, taking heavy gulps of air.
Gaping out at me from a jagged wall of crystal, where it had been entombed for millennia, were the empty eye sockets of a hominid skull.
Anthropologists would have a hissy fit at what I was about to do. Oh, but they’d thank me later.
I stood and raised pickaxe, then let it fly one more time. The spike punctured the forehead, and the skull shattered like porcelain. A deep thump reverberated through the cave. The air around me seemed to vibrate.
One down, four to go.
I staggered to the second stalagmite, the second cornerstone. Then proceeded to beat the crap out of it, too.
Buried in the rock, another hominid skull crumbled to pieces around the spike of my pickaxe. The cave rumbled, and I staggered sideways as dust sprinkled down from the ceiling. Behind me, ripples spread out across the pool’s glassy surface.
Panting now, I slogged to the third one, raised my axe, and buried the steel up to the hilt. The spire broke open around it, cracking like glass.
I bashed it in, pulverizing the embedded fragments into the cave floor.
Another seismic tremor rocked the cave. A sliver of limestone cleaved off an overhanging stalactite, hurtling down like a spear. It exploded on the floor inches from where I stood.
Going to have to do better than that.
I bashed in the fourth stalagmite, busted the skull inside. Like nothing.
Its base destroyed, the pillar of limestone fissured and tipped sideways, crashing through more mineral spires before it shattered against the ground.
Around me, an unearthly moan rose through the cavern, the wind screaming through the tiny exit hole as it evacuated the cave. My ears popped as the pressure dropped, before the wind all came howling back with a chest-crushing thump.
I paused at the fifth, the final pillar, wiped my mouth with the back of my hand, wheezing in the limestone dust. Last one.
I drove the spike down with everything I had. The steel sparked on the rock, chipped off whole chunks, crushed them. The fifth hominid skull cracked down the middle and exploded into dust.
The anomaly ruptured.
In front of me, the space inside the pillars seemed to cave in to nothing, creating a whirlpool in midair. The space contorted, spinning and tightening until it cinched shut.
And then it exploded.
A shockwave slammed me in the chest. I was lifted off my feet and jettisoned across the cave and into the pool. Limestone dust swept over me, and across the cave, dozens and dozens of stalactites broke off from the ceiling, shattering against the ground. The sound of it all was deafening. I covered my head.
Yeah, destroying their portals always caused a kickback.
But it was done.
I coughed, gasping for breath as I dragged myself out of the pool and rested against my pack. I grinned into the darkness.
One less doorway to hell.
Sometimes I found
it hypnotizing to watch time like a human might. And sometimes, like right now, it was agony.
My body swayed inside the bus as trees and houses blurred by. One hour and fifty-seven minutes had passed since I got inside this hellacious
My hands squeezed my thighs, my fingernails digging into the leather. The smell of all these tightly packed bodies, the walls that seemed to close in on all sides, the unnatural speed of this thing—it was all the most acute kind of torture.
Buses could rot in the flames of Abyssos.
Slowly the town of White Sulfur Springs rolled into view. One sad building followed the next. The whole place looked as though it had just given up. I wondered how much of it was my people’s fault. Magic always came at a price.
These people had more than likely paid their fair share.
The bus shuddered to a stop in front of a boarded up store. As soon as the vehicle’s doors hissed open, I fought the urge to jump out of my seat and claw my way past the bus’s other occupants just to get through first. Instead I stood and took my time shuffling into the aisle, pretending I was bored rather than barely keeping my anxiety and the contents of my stomach down. And I tried not to gasp in my first breaths of fresh air once I left the bus.
I made my way between the buildings. Beyond them, the wilderness stretched on. As soon as I hit the tree line, I tightened my satchel, and then I ran.
The wind of this world felt the same as mine, the ground felt the same. If it weren’t for the absence of magic that my homeland was steeped in, I could almost believe the two worlds were the same.
But this one wasn’t war-torn. Not like mine.
So many humans. And they were thriving. So few of us. And we were dying.
I passed a tree shaped like a trident, which marked the end of my run. The portal was just up ahead.
The smell of exhaust pulled me up short.
That smell didn’t belong here.
I continued forward slower this time, sheltering my form behind tree trunks, just to be safe. I was nearly to the caves. So close to home I could almost taste it.
I scented the air again, and again I smelled the exhaust right before I saw the car.
A big heifer of a vehicle. It’d been parked alongside the overgrown dirt road I thought was abandoned.
Apparently it wasn’t.
Infernari didn’t travel by car. Which meant . . .
I hid behind
a tree, pressing my chest against the rough bark.
As a human might say,
Crossing worlds was hard enough on its own. Now I had a human to deal with.
I’d never encountered this particular issue before.
I could always resolve the situation with magic, but there were those that looked for such disturbances. They’d follow the residual magic left behind like carrion to a kill. And this close to a doorway . . .
No, no magic.
I could simply chance it; I could assume that whoever had found themselves here would not be near the caves. That they would not see a strange girl disappear belowground without any sort of human tools to accompany her. Or if they did, that they would not ask those questions they were so infamous for.
Assuming was just another sort of risk I was unwilling to take.
I fixated on the car as I moved about the trees, keeping my footsteps silent like I’d learned to as a child. And then—
The car rocked.
I must’ve imagined it. But, even as I tried to reassure myself, I saw it shake again, like something was inside it.
The owner? Please, Great Mother above, let that be the owner. Then, after they were done with whatever nonsense had brought them out here, so far from their beloved cities, they’d drive away and I would not have to waste any additional time waiting or investigating.
The car shook harder, and then a sound from within it rose.
Something that sounded a lot like a pained cry.
What in all the worlds?
My eyes searched the car over again, noticing all the details that I didn’t see at first blush. This wasn’t just any vehicle. Normally the natives made cars from fairly rickety materials. Not this one. It was armored. And then came that horrible cry again, like the sound of a wounded creature, and it came from
Reflexively, my hand went to one of my weapons.
Sometimes humans ventured out to wild areas like this one, seeking adventure. But this wasn’t an adventurous human.
This was something else entirely.
Use caution, they’re crafty.
More noises came from the car. The healer in me found them hard to ignore, even if it was a human that made them.
Perhaps the owner of the vehicle was hurt and could not drive away. I would be waiting quite a long time if that were the case. Making a quick decision, I dropped my satchel behind the tree. I would see what I could do.
Still, I pulled my daggers out.
Injured or not, this was a conniving human. I wouldn’t put it past them to harm me even as I helped them.