MERcURY IS HoT
Okay, to be fair, he wasn’t a werewolf. He was red and white, not the slate gray I’d expect from a man who transformed into a shaggy monster animal.
So, a were-fox?
But that wasn’t the problem. The problem was the monster had vanished.
Super. And to make matters worse, the random bearded guy wearing the cape was staring at me like he was expecting me to—I don’t know, explode or something.
“What has happened to the beast?” The were-fox snarled his words. Which I guess was easy for him, seeing as how his face was full of canine teeth.
“He’s standing right in front of me,” I said. “If you’re talking about the astral fiend that’s on fire, then I don’t know.”
“Don’t take that tone with me!” Were-fox shifted the aim of his musket.
“Mind your manners, now.” Wilhelmina snuck in from the shadows. Her amped-up dagger hovered by the critter’s rib cage, ready to filet him. “Let’s all not commit any undue violence, hear?”
Nice intervention, but I was too fired up to back down. “Listen, man. If this is some weird combo of fantasy LARPing mixed with Revolutionary re-enactment, I think that’s pretty cool, but why don’t you take your popgun and go home. I’ve got real terrors to deal with. And I’m not talking about the funky smell coming off your fur.”
“Of all the dragon-chewed goblin filth... You’ll close that mouth of yours for good.” He drew back on the musket’s hammer.
Cute. I willed power into the pulsar stave, enough to get it glowing like the sun, then touched its tip to the barrel. The metal turned cherry-red, molten. The end sloughed off, leaving sizzling patches in the dirt.
“That’s enough, Niall.” The bearded guy pushed the were-fox away and, surprisingly, the were-fox didn’t literally bite his head off. Niall just grimaced as he inspected the ruined musket. “This lad is no threat to us. Nor is his elder.”
Wilhelmina snorted and rolled her eyes.
Lad? I made a face. “You part of this renaissance fair, too?”
The pulsar stave lit up the bearded visage. His expression was way too familiar to belong to some dude who’d just dropped out of a portal. Then, the guy smiled. “Mercury. I cannot explain how it us, but it is good to see you.”
“Yeah... Okay.” I tapped my earpiece. Enough of fun time with strangers. I needed answers. “Liz, you there?”
“Mercury! What’s going on? When the portal opened, I thought it was a second rip like the kind that dumped out the fiery astral fiend, but the tachyon pulses were off the chart and the gravitational distortion—!”
“Easy, Liz. Tell me where it went.”
“Okay. Okay.” Deep, whooshing breaths hiss-ed through my earpiece. When Liz continued, she sounded calmer. “It’s hop-skipping around the woods.”
“How very bucolic.” Loredana’s dry tones cut in. “Mercury, return to your car. We’ll keep you apprised of the situation and determine an exit point. It appears the creature is circling toward the highway.”
“On it.” I started away from the clearing, but stopped, one foot propped on a smoldering log. “What about these guys?”
“You’ll need to specific.”
“I know the drone’s up there.” I waved skyward. A tiny blinking light responded. “You’re seeing them, right?”
Niall pitched his ruined weapon into the brush. He brandished a ninja sword. Really? Because I hadn’t had enough of bladed weapons lately? “We’d best continue the hunt, Bowen. This one seems good only for prattle.”
I pointed a finger. “Hey, listen, fur-face—”
The rest of my insult evaporated as Niall turned into a man. I mean, his fur retracted, his features melted, and next thing I knew, a handsome red-headed guy in baggy white shirt and brown pants stood there. He had a cape, too, because why not?
“Well if that don’t beat all,” Wilhelmina murmured.
“We can be of assistance,” the bearded guy—Bowen, apparently—said. “We have pursued the strange beast to this same place, though we have no inkling how we came to be here.”
“Yeah, well, give Liz a sec and she’ll find a couple inklings.” I ran a hand through my hair. Sweat slicked my palm. It was criminal that it was still this hot so late in the evening. Didn’t help that Bowen’s unnerving stare was growing more and more recognizable with each second that ticked by.
“Mercury,” Loredana said. “You and Wilhelmina must get moving.”
“I know, I know.” Sounded petulant, but hey, I figured it was better than throwing a “Yes, dear,” across the radio waves, mostly because I’d seen how well Loredana could shoot. Seriously, though. Enough of this standing around. But what was I gonna do with these jokers? Downside, they popped out of a portal, which was never a good thing, unless, you know, they were family.
Plus side? They had swords. And one guy could transform.
“Fire.” Niall sniffed the air like was still in fox-mode.
He was right. A tree not thirty feet had burst into flame.
“Confound it all.” Bowen sighed and aimed his palm at the fire like he was gonna tell it to get lost. He whispered a word and blue light suffused his whole hand, pulsating down his wrist and under his sleeve.
He sprayed ice on the newborn blaze like he was a human fire extinguisher.
I stared at the clumps of ice that weighed down the branches. Then I pointed at Bowen and Niall. “Okay, never mind the last three minutes. I’m Mercury Hale. This is Sherry Jean Crown—likes to be called Wilhelmina. Nice to meet you. Let’s go kill us a flaming meatball.”
Gotta hand it to those guys—they could sprint. I scrambled as best I could over loose dirt, patches of sand, and almost faceplanted when I tripped over a stray root. Who put that thing there? Wilhelmina was right beside me, handling every obstacle with an ease borne of her absorbing energy from the modified Medan dagger. Bowen and Niall, though, ran like they were stars of their high school track teams back in the day—though I had a sneaking suspicion neither of them had a clue what a high school was.
You should have seen their faces when I hopped into the Subaru.
Bowen eased into the passenger seat. He tapped the roof overhead. “Cramped.”
“It isn’t roomy, but it’s fast.” I gunned the engine, not waiting to see if Niall had figured out the deal. “Get in!”
The big lug smacked his head on the door frame. He snarled in a manner that sounded startlingly like an actual animal. “I won’t be confined in such a cramped carriage.”
“Quit your jawing and get in!” Wilhelmina shoved him. Her door slammed. “Lordy. You and Mercury could heat up a hot air balloon with all the excess gas.”
“Remove your hands, crone!” Niall glared at her. “Bowen, this contraption has no horses. What am I supposed to do, wish for an aethershard?”
“It does have a wheel.” Bowen peered at the ignition switch. “Is that key what accesses the magic?”
I grinned. “Nah. That’s the pedals.”
I popped it into drive and sped down the road.
There was another meaty thud. Niall yelped. Must’ve hit his head again. Either that or Wilhelmina walloped him for calling her crone. “If this pup kills me, I’ll cut out his spleen!”
“Shut up and belt up!” I snapped.
We skidded out onto the highway, headlights illuminating a dump truck as we slid into the next lane. I really thought our lives were gonna end in twisted metal and the deafening blare of a car horn, which would be a terrible way to go after everything I’d experienced. So, the narrow miss was super.
“Mercury!” Liz again. “I’ve got the fiend. It’s headed toward the city.”
Perfect. Because why would it roll out of town, away from the places where it could do the most damage? I cranked on the wheel, slammed the brakes, and put us unto reverse. The ensuing turn was so sharp I thought we’d all end up with whiplash. “On it!”
It wasn’t but a minute before we saw it, leaping from culvert to culvert at what had to be 40 or 50 mph. That made it easier to keep up. Not that I was happy the critter could teleport itself from Point A to Point B just like its less fiery relatives.
“Get me nearer, and I can stop it.” Bowen rapped on the passenger side window. “Shall I break this, or does it open of its own accord.”
Something about the way he was speaking—and the fact that he wasn’t freaking out about riding in my car—was ringing a bell. I lowered the window with a flip of a switch.
“Thank you.” He stuck his hands outside and hauled himself through the gap where a nice, safe pane of glass used to be.
“That’s not a bad idea.” The admiration was plain in Wilhelmina’s voice.
“You stay put. And, hey! Bowen! What’d I just say about seat belts?” The car rabbited toward the center line. A passing pickup honked, and I jerked the wheel swerving us back the other way.
“We have to slay the beast, and since your carriage does not hold any cannons—”
“And you melted my bloody musket,” Niall growled from behind me.
“—I must take action to end its rampage.” With that, Bowen was out of the car, his cloak discarded on the seat. The last thing I saw were a pair of very cool leather boots with big old cuffs, pirate style, vanishing into the dark.
Something pressed down on the roof. I swear there was the indent of a shoe right over my head.
“Shark’s blood.” Niall contorted himself, his foot up near his ear, so he could slide into the front passenger seat. “If you’d but left me my gun, we’d be able to end this battle all the sooner.”
“Hate to disappoint you, but this is a car chase.” I wound my window down. We were a couple car lengths behind the fiery fiend. I charged the pulsar stave and separated one half, letting the other drop into my lap. Yikes! That was cold. “Quit whining about that stupid gun because you’re the only one without a toy at the party.”
“Get me near enough and my fangs will do more than a musket ball or your lightning stick.”
Lightning stick? I sneered and thrust the stave half out the window. Check this out.
A blast of yellow-white energy crackled through the night air, lending daylight to our stretch of the highway. Struck that stupid fiend right in its flaming rear end—not that it actually had one.
Sizzling hide sheared off, which was great, until it spattered across the windshield. Reflex forced me to turn on the wipers and, yeah, I added some spray. All that did was make it about a hundred times harder to see.
“Good shot!” Wilhelmina’s hand slapped my shoulder. “But I have to throw in my two cents with our hairy new friend—drop us off so we can get to stabbing.”
But my attack did the trick. Too well. The fiend halted in midair. I slammed on the brakes, tires squealing, and put the car into a spin. Niall howled from the passenger seat, one hand one the door and the other squeezing my shoulder so hard I thought he’d break a bone. Wilhelmina laughed.
A sword tip cut through the roof. Any closer to my face and I wouldn’t have had to shave for the next week.
Huh. I knew I’d seen a blade that shape somewhere before—
We slid sideways underneath the fiend as fiery tentacles lashed down. Asphalt bubbled. The car’s tires didn’t like that. Felt like I was driving over the wrong side of a giant sheet of duct tape. Flame melted the passenger rear view mirror.
That’s what I got for bringing my car into this mess. Again.
And what in the world was that Bowen guy waiting for?
The night suddenly lit up with that blue light. Frost crept over the roof, down through the open windows, and crystalized on the windshield. I leaned over the steering wheel.
Bowen crouched on the hood. Ice streamed from both hands, pummeling the fiery fiend. Its screams rattled the glass and vibrated the whole car. Tentacles flopped at its sides, turned from flaming weapons into limp, charcoaled noodles.
Now that was impressive.
The rest of us didn’t need invites. We leap from the car. I stepped in hot asphalt and yelped, because yeah, I could feel that through the soles of my shoes. That didn’t stop me from lunging for the fiend’s useless appendages, the energy blades from the pulsar staves searing them off with clean, sweeping cuts.
“Bowen!” Niall wrenched the sword from my roof and threw it.
It seemed to float through the air, and in that suspended moment, my brain put it together—it was shaped just like the one from Liz’s apartment. The one she’d lent to me when Skipper and I needed weaponry a few months back during our fight against Alexander Arkwright and a horde of undead corpse-fiends. A falchion, she’d called it.
Bowen snatched the weapon while in a spin, ducking an incoming tentacle, and brought it up with a savage cry. He thrust the blade deep into the monster’s hide, burying it up to the hilt. Thick, bluish-black ooze soaked his hands.
The fiend shrieked until I thought my brains were gonna bleed out my ears. But it was a good sound. My favorite. Because it meant that guy’s time was short.
Instead of sublimating into a film that would eventually evaporate, though, the thing’s eyes burned with a literal fire. That fire didn’t stay put. No such luck. It spread from the eyes, like rain streaming down a window, except it ran in rivulets all over the thing’s body. Tentacles regrew. As in, super-fast.
Worse, the fire streams congregated around Bowen’s blade.
Metal started to glow.
“Clouds above!” Bowen wrenched the sword free. Ichor spattered his shirt, eating holes in the fabric. He slipped off the hood.
“Get back and let me ruin the foul creature!” Niall stood astride his fallen pal, the ninja sword flashing red as it reflected the flames. “I’ll gut every last inch of its entrails!”
Tentacles swarmed around him, newly ignited. Idiot was gonna get himself killed. I rejoined the pulsar stave and slammed one end into the pavement. The explosion of energy vaulted me far over the fiend, nearly to the treetops, letting me somersault through the rest of the fiery tentacles. Had to find a clear landing spot...
I landed atop its hide.
My leg buckled.
No! Not now!
I collapsed, the pulsar stave askew. Its energies tore open the fiend’s hide but didn’t penetrate nearly deep enough to kill it.
And it knew. Boy, did it ever.
A searing tentacle wrapped around my waist. It felt a thousand times worse than touching my fingers to a hot baking sheet fresh from the over. Only the stave’s power, absorbed into my body, kept it from melting the flesh clean from my bones.
Something slammed into me and I thought I was gonna have the life drained from me, either before or after I was burned alive.
But it wasn’t superheated astral fiend tentacle hide. It was Wilhelmina.
She and I wound up in a ditch, sprawled in leaves and dirt. Steam rose around us. I couldn’t breathe. Someone was driving a knife through my leg, I was sure of it.
The fiend turned on us. Three tentacles slashed through the darkness, flaming whips that signaled major pain.
Niall was there, a red-white blur with a sword. He lopped off the ends of all three with one swipe. Heck of an intercession.
The monster pummeled him with the stumps. Knocked him onto his backside. I figured the fiend was ready for its next meal. Instead it contracted in a whip-crack of thunder and purple light, dragged into a gash of darkness so black I thought I was gonna fall into it even though it was above me. A sudden wind thrashed the trees and bounced the car on its tires.
The sonic boom tipped the Subaru on its side and the fiend was gone.
Boots shuffled on loose asphalt. Bowen staggered to us, dragging his sword. “How did you fare?”
Niall held out a hand that morphed from red- and white-furred into human as Bowen helped him to his feet. He slapped Bowen on the shoulder. “Not dead. Not yet.”
“Though you did try your hardest to remedy that, I see.” Bowen cracked a smiled.
Niall chuckled. “It does get the heart up, doesn’t it?”
“You two are insane.” I propped myself up with the pulsar stave.
“Take it easy, now.” Wilhelmina had my arm around her shoulder. “You ain’t in no shape to go hauling after that thing.”
She wasn’t wrong. I needed the crutch, because my prosthetic leg had melted. All that remained was a plastic and metal mush that had hardened into a lump like a green toy army man exposed to a pyro kid’s matches. “The astral fiend’s gone, and if it can’t be killed, we’re in deep trouble.”
“Never met a beast what can’t be slain,” Niall grumbled.
“Yeah, well, I never met a young version of a guy I already knew, so we’re two for two in crazy new experiences.” I let Bowen help me stand. Made sure to look him square in the face. Younger, sure. The beard was a rich brown, the skin free of the wrinkles of old age. What weathering there was seemed to have been put in place by sun. The eyes, though... and the lilt of his puzzled smile. “I don’t believe it. No wonder you knew my name.”
“Mercury Hale.” Bowen shook his head. “I do know you, don’t I?”
“Sort of. I think.” I prodded his chest. “You’re Skipper, all right, but about thirty years too young.”