Read Darklands Online

Authors: Nancy Holzner

Tags: #Fantasy, #General, #Fiction

Darklands (3 page)

BOOK: Darklands
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Before I could answer, the Harpy blasted back into the classroom. Tina ducked, but it flashed past her. Once a Harpy locks on to its victim, it ignores everything else. And this one was sure as hell locked onto me.

I swung the chair again, but the demon swerved at the last minute and went around behind me. It landed on my shoulders. I wriggled them, trying to keep its talons from digging into my jacket. I dropped the chair and put both arms over my face, shielding it from the snakes’ fangs. Then I reached back and got
my right hand around one of its legs. I pulled hard and flung the demon away from me. It flew back up toward the ceiling.

Tina pinched her nose. “Oh, and in case you’re wondering what that smell is,” she said, “that’s the Harpy. They stink like garbage and rotten eggs and I don’t even know what else. That’s why Vicky puts eucalyptus oil in her nostrils before she fights a Harpy, to cover up the smell.” She turned to me. “You know, you could’ve warned us you’d be bringing a real Harpy for show-and-tell,” she scolded. “It’s not as much fun when I feel like puking.”

“I—”

The Harpy dived again. I somersaulted, and it crashed to the floor. It leapt into the air, jumping over me and landing on my left ankle. Talons dug through my jeans and into the thick leather of my boot. They didn’t penetrate to my skin, but this time the Harpy had a strong grip on me. I kicked. The demon spread its wings for balance; its beak tore into my leg. Cloth ripped, and pain slashed through my thigh. A moment later, I felt the sting of a snake bite. My leg went numb.

“To fight a Harpy,” Tina was saying, “it’s best to use bronze bullets. You want to kill the demon before it can get close to you. As Vicky is demonstrating for us, once a Harpy gets its claws into you, you’ve got a real problem.”

No kidding. My left leg, useless as a fallen log, now merely served as a perch for the Harpy. I kicked at the demon with my right leg, trying to knock it off while avoiding its beak. I smashed the sole of my boot into its beak and chest, but its grip only tightened. Its beak slashed my right calf, and I pulled my leg back to keep it out of range of the snakes.

The Harpy hopped up my paralyzed leg, digging its talons in above and below my knee. It was trying to make its way to my torso, where it would rip into my abdomen to feed on my guts. I kept kicking. I was not going to be disemboweled as the finale to Career Night.

Still kicking with my good leg, I worked my arms out of my jacket. If I could wrap the thick leather around the Harpy, I might be able to trap it long enough to wrestle it into a locker. With the demon encased in metal, a quick containment charm would hold it in place while I figured out how to finish it off.

I shrugged off the jacket as the Harpy inched up my leg. I was running out of time. Keeping my gaze slightly to the right of the Medusa head, I waited for it to strike. Tina’s voice droned
on. I wasn’t listening to her, I was listening for the soft, guttural clucking that a Harpy makes when it’s about to feed.

There.

The Harpy lunged forward to strike, and I threw my jacket over its head. It shrieked with fury as I wrapped it up in the jacket. Keeping the head covered, I clasped the demon in a bear hug, pushing with my good leg so I rolled over on top of it. It bucked and writhed, but I held it.

Now to stuff it into a locker. Not so easy to do with only one working leg.

“Tina,” I said. “I need your help. We have to—”

“I thought you’d never ask,” she said. “We were only supposed to get ten minutes, you know.” But she didn’t come over. She kept talking to the class. “Now, if you don’t have bronze bullets, you need a bronze blade of some sort. Bronze is like poison to demons. So—”

The Harpy heaved, almost bucking me off.

“Tina!” I shouted. “We’ve got to imprison this Harpy. I don’t have a bronze blade.”

“But I do,” she said. She pulled a six-inch bronze dagger from her backpack. “You told me you wouldn’t bring a weapon into school, so I did.”

Bless the girl. And zero tolerance be damned.

“Toss it to me.” I tried to hold out a hand so she could throw me the knife, but the Harpy’s frenzied movements were too wild. I had to grab the demon again before it threw me off.

Tina sauntered over. The Playboy bunny on her shirt winked as she bent to examine the situation.

“I’m going to pull back the edge of the jacket,” I said. “Just a little. When I do, stab the exposed part—”

Before I could finish, a taloned foot worked its way out from under the jacket. The bronze blade flashed as Tina stabbed upward, under the jacket, spearing the Harpy in its leg.

It let out a furious shriek, loud enough to make all the demons of Hell cover their ears.

“Good!” I shouted. “Move the blade around. Maximize contact with the bronze.”

Tina made a face. “It’s getting, like, all mushy.” She pinched her nose again. “And it smells even worse.”

“That’s exactly what we want.” The Harpy’s struggles were getting weaker. “Give me the dagger. I’ll finish it off.”

Tina pulled the dagger from the Harpy’s body. Black slime dripped from the blade in long, gooey strings. The smell was eau de sulfur, accented with notes of rotting garbage, decaying flesh, and vomit. Tina handed me the dagger, then covered her nose with both hands and backed away.

Keeping the Harpy’s head firmly wrapped in my jacket, I exposed its body. Its wings flapped weakly, without the strength to lift it into the air. I raised the dagger high and drove it straight down into the demon. And then again. And again. With each blow, the Harpy got smaller. Its cries grew fainter, its movements more feeble. In a minute, all that remained was a still, deflated body in a stinking puddle of demon guts.

As soon as the Harpy was dead, the class came back to life. Zombies blinked and coughed. They stretched and looked around. “Dude,” someone muttered. “I feel like I’ve been reanimated all over again.”

Feeling was creeping back into my leg, but I couldn’t yet get it under me to stand. Tina came forward and put out a hand. I reached out so she could help me up, but instead she plucked her dagger from my hand. She faced the class and brandished it.

“And that,” she declared, “is how you slay a demon.”

2

“WHERE,” I ASKED TINA AS I RUBBED ANTISEPTIC CREAM INTO my leg, “did you get the money to pay a sorcerer?” We stood at a row of sinks in the girls’ bathroom. I’d finished washing out the cuts and gouges left by the Harpy; Tina held the first-aid kit Mrs. McIntyre had given us. I peered at the cut I was treating. In a couple of days I’d be good as new. At least I wasn’t human. Any norm who tangled with that Harpy would land in the hospital for a week. The Cerddorion, my race of shapeshifters, don’t heal as fast as vampires and werewolves, but we do okay.

“What sorcerer?” Tina set the first-aid kit on the edge of a sink and leaned over to inspect her makeup in the mirror. She turned on the faucet, wet her finger, and rubbed at a smudge of mascara. “I didn’t pay anybody anything.”

Oh, no. “Don’t tell me you conjured that Harpy yourself.”
Please
don’t tell me that. “Sorcery is nothing to mess around with, Tina. You can’t just bring in a demon for show-and-tell. Someone could have been hurt, even killed.” Like me. I rubbed the spot, now slowly tingling back to life, where the snake had bitten my leg.

“What are you talking about?” She paused in reapplying her baby-pink lip gloss. “I thought you conjured that Harpy. You know, for a prop.”

“You mean the Harpy that was doing its best to kill me? Some prop.”

“It was an
awesome
prop—almost as good as those coupons for Munchies. I thought you did it to surprise me.” She smacked her lips at the mirror, then turned to me, frowning. “But you told Mrs. McIntyre that you didn’t.”

The teacher, as red-faced as it’s possible for a zombie to get, had stammered, “Did you bring that…that
creature
into this classroom?” while I sat on the floor, trying to get my paralyzed leg under me. The idea of conjuring a Harpy against myself—and in a room full of innocent bystanders, no less—knocked me flat. I’d stared at her and shook my head.

“You’re lucky your own ‘prop’ didn’t get you kicked out of school,” I said to Tina.

She shrugged. “Whatever.” Why do teenagers
do
that—go all surly right at the moment they might actually learn something? Had I been like that? My aunt, Mab, never would have put up with it. Okay, maybe once or twice I muttered something under my breath during the years I was her demon-fighting apprentice, but Tina made surliness an art form.

“No, not ‘whatever.’ So you don’t care about school. Fine. But what if Mrs. McIntyre had followed procedure and called the Goon Squad?”

The Goon Squad, officially known as the Joint Human-Paranormal Task Force, was tasked with keeping law and order in Deadtown. Because those of us who live here have few legal rights, the Goons have almost unlimited powers to detain whoever they feel like detaining. And some of those detainees never come back.

Tina’s reply was another shrug.

“You were lucky, Tina.” Zero tolerance was supposed to mean exactly that. No exceptions, no excuses. And that’s what it did mean in Boston’s other schools. But Deadtown’s one and only school operated under the radar, apparently. Most zombies are adults; the virus that had turned two thousand Bostonians into zombies swept through Downtown Crossing in the middle of a school day (guess who’d cut classes to go shopping). Soon after, the former quarantine zone became Deadtown. But it had taken more than two years for the kids who lived here to get their own school. It served all grades, with a student body made up of a few werewolves but mostly zombies—kids, like Tina, who’d gotten
caught in the path of the plague. The school was understaffed and underfunded. The school board didn’t even bother to supply the standardized tests that all students were supposed to take.

Tonight, Mrs. McIntyre had snatched the dagger from Tina’s hand. I was sure she’d march Tina to the principal’s office to wait for the Goons. But she didn’t. She inspected the dagger, then handed it back. And why not? It wasn’t made of silver, so it was no threat to werewolves, and a dagger of any sort was about as dangerous to a zombie as the pencils the teacher kept in a mug on her desk. “Remove this from the building, and don’t bring it again,” she’d said in a tight voice. “Weapons are not allowed in school.” By that time, I’d made it to my feet. Mrs. McIntyre looked at my torn, bloody jeans and rummaged around in her desk until she found the first-aid kit.

For whatever reason—maybe she didn’t feel a need to enforce the policies of a school board that pretended her school didn’t exist—Mrs. McIntyre had given Tina a second chance.

“Lucky?” Tina snorted. She peeled open a Band-Aid and handed it to me. “That’s the first time anyone’s called me that since I got zombified.” The tip of her tongue poked out of the corner of her mouth as she opened another Band-Aid. She focused on the task, not meeting my eyes. “So, um, what are you going to tell your aunt?”

For some reason, when Mab had visited Boston from her home in north Wales, she and Tina had really hit it off. If Mab sat at Mrs. McIntyre’s desk, Tina would be a front-and-center, straight-A student.

Holding the edges of a cut together, I stuck on a bandage. “I’ll tell her that I was attacked by a Harpy.” I looked at Tina, narrowing my eyes. “Origin unknown, right?”

She nodded, red eyes wide, the picture of zombified innocence. I decided to believe her.

“And that you helped me kill it,” I finished.

A grin stretched her face. A smiling zombie isn’t what you’d call pretty, but Tina looked pleased with herself. “What about my report, all that stuff I told the class about Harpies?”

“Tina, I was wrestling with a demon that was dead-set on killing me. You have to admit that’s a little distracting.”

“Oh. Yeah, I guess you’re right.” She chewed her lip, then nodded. “That’s okay. Your aunt went over Harpies with me while she was here. I did good—she’ll remember that.”

Tina lifted my arm and draped it around her shoulders, letting me lean on her as I limped out of the girls’ room and down the hallway. As we went along, she chattered about the Harpy and how it compared to what she’d read in books. Maybe Tina wasn’t as indifferent to learning as I’d thought.

Good for her. But there was one thing I really wanted to learn: If Tina didn’t conjure that Harpy, who did?

NIGHTTIME IS DEADTOWN’S BUSIEST TIME. VAMPIRES AND zombies prefer to avoid direct sunlight (a zombie sunburn results in pitted, orange skin that doesn’t heal), so they’re out and about from dusk until dawn. Tina’s school “day” went from eight
P.M.
to two thirty
A.M.
By the time I was patched up and back on the street, it was nearly three in the morning.

The mid-April night was chilly. Boston had been having a cool spring, but you wouldn’t know it to look at the zombies who thronged the streets. Because they don’t feel heat or cold, they wear whatever they want, whatever the weather. Most zombies cling to their legal status as previously deceased humans, or PDHs—they’re definitely not norms, but they’re still human, and they want to look the part to whatever extent they can. Tonight I saw the full range of zombie fashion: most wore jeans and T-shirts, but there were business suits, uniforms, dresses, khakis, shorts and flipflops—you name it. And then, of course, there was Tina. When it came to zombie fashion, she was in a class by herself.

When I limped through the front door of my apartment, my roommate was watching TV. Juliet sat in the dark and stared at the giant flatscreen that took up an entire wall, its flickering light tingeing her pale skin with blue. I turned on the overhead light. She blinked rapidly, like someone coming out of a trance, and refocused on me.

At six hundred fifty (give or take a couple of decades), Juliet still looked like the twenty-two-year-old who was turned by an unscrupulous vampire posing as a friar. Her long raven hair, wide brown eyes, and shapely curves had been popping eyes and turning heads for more than six centuries.

I was glad to see it. A month ago, Juliet had nearly died in an attack by the Old Ones, shadowy, ancient super-vampires who wanted to move beyond undeath and into eternal life. The Old
Ones were responsible for the zombie virus, which they’d unleashed on Boston as an experiment. That experiment had sent its human victims through death and back into life, but the Old Ones didn’t want to become zombies; they wanted to be gods. They kept working on their magically enhanced virus, using Juliet and other vampires as their lab rats. The other vampires had died, dissolving into piles of dust. Juliet had survived thanks to Aunt Mab, who’d used her personal talisman to restore Juliet’s life force. When Juliet’s comatose body started to disintegrate, Mab performed a life-giving ritual that didn’t just save Juliet; it restored her. She said she felt better than she had in centuries.

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