MERcURY IS HoT
I was wrapping my brain around the difference between a red blend and a merlot—and why I should care—when the ten-foot-wide flaming meatball burned a path down the hillside.
Had to figure. It was the first gorgeous day we’d had after two weeks of gloom. Everything was still brittle and dry, because as much as the clouds had threatened, we hadn’t gotten a drop of rain. With zero clouds and a sky so blue it bordered on fake, everyone was out and about in short sleeves and, well, shorts. Royal’s Roadside was the perfect place to spend the afternoon. Where else could you buy locally made cheeses, farm-fresh produce, and a bottle of wine for a certain fiancée who wanted to spend a romantic evening together?
Sounded like a great way to end the day before the giant whatever it was interrupted.
It broke through the tree line, hit the ditch, and catapulted across the 311. Good thing traffic through the Arbor Valley was light or it would have pulverized a car—which it wound up doing when it slammed into a row of parked vehicles on the opposite side. Bashed into a tiny Corolla sandwich between two Dodge Rams, scorching the paint on both pickups. The Corolla crumpled, permanently reshaped into a huge metal catcher’s mitt.
I felt for the owner of the car. Seriously. But I was also super happy it wasn’t my ride.
People shouted and screamed. They dropped bags. Tomatoes spattered on the pavement. It was a mad scramble for car keys and dash for driver’s side doors. Me? I slapped two twenties down on the counter, said, “Keep the change,” and sprinted across the road.
“Sprinted” is an exaggeration. It was more a speedy limp. Such is the case when you’ve had to cut off one of your legs in the course of saving the world. But, hey, the world wasn’t destroyed, and I got a robotic prosthetic. And it was sunny.
Either way, I wouldn’t be much help cleaning up wrecked cars, but since the giant flameball sprouted tentacles, I knew my expertise was required.
There was no mistaking the shriek of an astral fiend.
I was used to hearing it echo among buildings in downtown San Camillo or banging off the sides of an abandoned warehouse. Was not expecting it to set the junipers lining the highway on fire and every bird within a hundred yards flapping for safety, the dumb ones that hadn’t already fled, that is.
“Hey!” Fred Royal, the farm stand owner, waved his phone. “You best stay back, son! Cops and fire are coming!”
“Thanks for the heads up!” I pulled the pulsar stave from under my shirt. I never went anywhere without the foot-long staff made of ice-cold metal. A quick twist sent golden-white light rippling through the swirling patterns etched into its sides. “I got this.”
He frowned with the exact same expression of my foster dads’ whenever I bluffed my way through being late for curfew. Tried to bluff, that is.
I bet his skepticism vanished when the astral fiend on fire flung the crushed door off the Corolla at me and I used a streamer of energy from the pulsar stave to slice it in half as I ran. Didn’t even break a sweat.
So, this was new. Astral fiends don’t catch on fire. Gaping maw full of fangs? Check. Covered in a glistening black hide? Yep. Hideous red eyes that gave you nightmares? Absolutely.
This guy looked as dry as the proverbial bone. No slime. No blue ooze. The flames distorted his features, giving him a much lighter appearance, like a coal left too long in the campfire. He speared the rest of the wrecked car and flipped it overhead. It crashed among the trees, away from people, which was great, except it meant stands of junipers on both sides of the highway were burning. Didn’t bode well for Royal’s.
I slapped at my earbud a bit too hard. Felt like it’d been punched. Note to self: Don’t try that again while running. “Hey, Liz! If no one’s gotten ahold of the fire department, you’d better get them here ASAP.”
“Fire? What kind of fire?” She sounded excited and terrified and there could have been a squeaking sound like her chair bouncing from inside Procyon Foundation’s temporary Tracking office. “The tachyon spike I registered is out of phase with the normal readings we get for a rip and I didn’t think it was a big deal because we get weird stuff all the time so when it showed up in the daylight instead of late at night—”
“Liz! Fire! The burning kind!” I leapt atop the hood of one of the two damaged pickups, vaulted off, and slashed through the nearest tentacle. It flopped to the ground, writhing and steaming. Blue ooze splattered me, the truck, and the screaming teen for whom it’d been reaching. No way I was going to let anyone become a freeze-dried mummy because this astral fiend had gotten the munchies and was keen on draining life from any human within reach.
That got Roasty’s attention. He went from cornering an older couple to facing me, a gaping mouth filled with jagged fangs suddenly less than six feet from my face. I pivoted midair, twisting to make an Olympic gymnast proud. Tentacles came at me from every which way.
You’d think I’d get used to the fiends’ tendency to invert themselves at will, but no, it surprised me every time. Of course, they liked to switch up their tactics, and apparently had added catching on fire to their repertoire.
Right about then was when my leg seized up. It wouldn’t bend when it was supposed to, which meant that instead of sticking an incredible superhero landing, I crunched onto the gravel shoulder of the road, knee first.
“Drone Eight’s on its way!” Liz said. “I’ll have visual soon. Police and fire are incoming, so you’d better have it cleaned up before they get there.”
The astral fiend—fireball?—wasn’t the brightest of creatures to breach the wall between the Interstice and this dimension, but it wasn’t a chump, either. Roasty slapped at me with two spike-sheathed tentacles, the appendages made even more unpleasant by the heat shimmering off them.
But I broke the pulsar stave into its twin halves and formed and X over my head. The tentacles crashed down. The resulting explosion blew out four sets of truck windows, sending bits of molten glass skyward like reverse rain.
Again, super glad none of that was happening to my ride.
“Sure thing, Liz!” I said through gritted teeth. “No prob!”
The weight shoved me toward the ground. The fiend’s shriek pummeled my head. Come on, man. I had a date tonight!
“Oh, good! Want me to send Wilhelmina for backup?”
My seventy-something mentor? If she saved my butt, I’d never live it down. I shoved back, with a guttural cry that wasn’t anywhere as intimidating as the monster’s and got enough room between us I could roll free. Or sort of stagger, I guess. Come on, gimpy, move it! Didn’t really think my prosthetic leg would respond to insults, but I needed to regain full mobility. Preferably before I died.
It finally responded the way I wanted, as in, like a real-live leg. Didn’t banish the pain shooting through what remained above the knee. Nothing ever did. But it got me to about 90 percent of my slick moves.
I slashed through an onrushing tentacle and drew on the stave’s energy until I felt like I was jittery from drinking every last drop of coffee at The Shattered Mug.
Then I somersaulted right over the fiend’s lumpy mass.
“You’d better move faster!” Liz yelped. “There’s a surge in tachyon emissions consistent with regeneration, you know, like when an astral fiend subsumes an injured monster and doubles in size.”
“Fun stuff.” I skidded between smoldering junipers, creating a dust cloud that obscured my location yet, shockingly enough, didn’t taste great. I spat grit from between my teeth. “Hey, if you’re having a blast tracking my movements from Drone Eight, how’s about you take a break and run a diagnostic on Leg 2.1? It froze up again.”
“Oh, sorry. Was it the capacitor? It should be holding onto the charge from the pulsar stave whenever you—”
The rest of her Mississippi River-length sentence drowned under the thunder crack of the nearest tree shattering. Roasty found me. And Liz was right: He’d grown back one of the three tentacles I’d snipped. Which was, yeah, bad.
I ran, which as advertised before, was more off-balance than I’d like. Still hadn’t gotten back to the normal gait, not even with a high-tech artificial leg powered by the same extra-dimensional energies that fueled the pulsar stave.
“—And if it hadn’t recovered, I’d be ready for the next version.” How Liz kept talking without coming up for air, I hadn’t a clue. “Hey, are you okay?”
“Nope! Not okay! Where’s police and fire?” Trees were torches around me. Those gentle breezes that lent relief from the blazing sun overhead aided the spread of the flames. And even though most people had fled the scene, it was far from safe.
Fred Royal wielded a fire extinguisher against the fire licking at the edges of his farm stand plot like he was holding back insurgents in Afghanistan. His efforts didn’t prevent a long wooden shelf of assorted fruits from burning up. His shouts brought a couple teen boys running down the dirt road that wound between the trees behind the stand. One of them unfurled a hose from a shed and sprayed water as best he could.
Okay, so burnt fruit wasn’t as high on the list of emergencies for a lot of people as, say, the ripping of space-time between our sunny dimension and the dark, dismal Interstice from which the astral fiends hailed. But I couldn’t watch this idiot monster’s flailing destroy the livelihood of a guy like Fred.
“Hey!” I smacked the pulsar staves off a pair of trees. The fiery fiend bellowed in my face. “Don’t forget the main course!”
It screamed and charged me.
I returned the favor.
There were no fancy acrobatics, no risking a malfunction of my wonky leg. I gave the beast exactly what it wanted—me, thrown into its grasping tentacles. They lashed the air around me, slicing through my shirt, opening a cut here and a slash there on my skin, but the stave had a bonus that it granted besides better reflexes and minor superpowers. I could heal faster than the average Joe, which probably had something to do with me not being a native American.
Being born in another dimension had its advantages.
I cut Roasty down from eight tentacles to seven, six, five, my weapons a blur so that I didn’t give him any time in which to regenerate. The downside? I got hurt more. And it put me way too close. Closer than I liked.
Close enough for him to finally wrap a spiky appendage around my neck.
Imagine taking a “polar bear” plunge. You know, the one that crazy folks who live in a state that actually has winter take by jumping into the iciest water imaginable. Except this ice permeated my skin, flowed through my veins, and hammered at my heart.
Couldn’t see straight. Heck, everything was sliding into gray. Liz shouted into my ear. Sirens wailed nearby—or way off? Nothing made sense. I wanted the pain to end. Fingers scrabbled at the weight pressing on my throat. Whatever energies the pulsar stave granted me drained away, leaving me with as much fighting strength as a teenager who’d been stuck in bed with the flu for a week.
Then my fake leg went dead.
Of course it would. Because it used the power I absorbed from the pulsar stave.
Great. The voice was back.
You’re never out of our reach. We’re always on the other side of the wall. Listening, Whispering.
I gritted my teeth. One half of the pulsar stave was on the ground. The other? Still clutched in one hand, bleeding just enough power to keep me from being drained to death by the fiend—and, apparently, keeping his flaming hide from burning me, because even though I felt like I was standing way too close to an open oven, I wasn’t in need of hospitalization yet.
No way. Marigold Yen and Alexander Arkwright and the Whisperer could take their collective haunting voices and shove them.
Gunfire blew through the fog clogging my hearing. Sounds returned to normal as bullets shredded the fiend’s face. And as if that weren’t enough, water engulfed us. Weird. Not a cloud in the sky, like I’d said. But we got drenched all the same. The fiend howled so loud I thought my eardrums would burst. Then, it dropped me.
Life, riding along the wave front of the pulsar staves’ energy, surged through my body. I was manic with power. I slammed the halves back together and swung with all my might.
Roasty vanished in a burst of purple light that felled a dozen trees and sent me tumbling end over end.
That’s where I was when Lt. Gabriel Ramos, SCPD, found me—upside down, against a trunk, my face mashed into a muddy shrub.
“Hang on. EMTs are on the way.” Ramos knelt beside me. He reeked of cordite. The smell was undercut by aftershave. The guy was dressed like he’d stepped out of the nearest pew, in a coral shirt lacking the smallest wrinkles, rose-colored tie secured with a silver cross for a tie-tack, and khakis ironed so sharply he could cut down the nearest trees. I could see myself inverted on his shined shoes. “But you got it, didn’t you?”
“Nope. Sorry.” I spit dirt, again. Twice in one fight was too many times. I pulled myself upright. “Plus, I left my supersuit at home.”
Ramos smirked. He tilted mirrored sunglasses up. “The filth smeared all over your face did a good job keeping your identity safe. Not that you’ve ever been particularly concerned about that aspect of your heroism.”
I rolled my eyes at that word. “Heroism,” not “aspect.” “What about the fires?”
Ramos helped me upright and offered himself as a human crutch as I staggered back to the road. My leg was up and running, for the moment. “This portion’s knocked down. FD is working across the road.”
They’d hosed down the farm stand pretty good, it seemed, because nothing over there was burning. Looked like Royal’s lost just the one rack, though they had a lot of produce that got extra washed.
No sign of the fiend, though.
“What was that thing?” Ramos asked.
“Astral fiend.” I wiped mud from my eyes.
“Are you sure?”
“Well, it tried to suck my life out using ice-cold tentacles and tended to scream a lot, so, yes.”
Ramos glowered, that oh-so-familiar angry dad combined with disapproving teacher look. “I meant, because it was dripping flames everywhere.”
“Yeah. Not normal.” I coughed. Smoke or water? Take your pick. I tried for the earbud—gently, this time. “Liz? Still there?”
“Yes, and you’d better explain why you went dead on your comms—”
“Lay off, will you? Roasty got away.”
“The fiend. The one on fire. Flaming meatball.” I shook my head, hoping Drone Eight was nearby getting footage of my exasperation. “Teleported. So, if you got any insights from the tachyon readouts, the sooner we go over the data, the better.”
“Yeah, I know, I know.” Liz switched over to an exaggerated whisper. “I meant, you know, Ms. Lark is right here and…”
She left the rest unsaid. I grimaced. “Hey, Loredana. Weren’t you downtown shopping? Didn’t think you’d be in the office?”
“Plans change, especially when one’s fiancé has found himself embroiled in a dimensional incursion of a unique nature.” I couldn’t help grinning at the cool, collected British tones filtering through the earbud. “Perhaps we should discuss it in detail when you return.”
“How about in private?”
You can hear people smile. I could guarantee it. “If that’s more to your liking.”
“Definitely to my liking.”
Ramos sighed. “The sooner you two get married, the better.”
I winked at him. “Let’s go find my car so I can blow this farm stand.”
“Mercury?” Loredana again. “Don’t forget the wine.”
Wine? I looked around. Ah. There it was, one soggy paper bag in the middle of the 311, courtesy of the smashed bottle of red blend. The cheeses were flatter than, well, the paper bag.
“Yeah,” I said. “About that…”