Fire. Swords swinging, shattering against the dragon’s hide. The blinding pain of an arm being horrifically burned. The determination to keep going, to serve the king as a good thane would. Anger and bitter disgust at the cowardice of those who also should have stood at their sides, but had instead fled. Resolve to stand and face the beast even at the cost of death. Terror pushed down by faith in the man ahead, and faith in the fact that such a death would be as glorious as fleeing would be shameful. Standing and fighting on against all odds and against all pain.
With a strangled, almost gurgling cry, Dakota Coalbright suddenly snapped awake. She would have jerked upright, had she not been restrained by something pressed tight against her chest. Against her entire body, really. A series of ropes bound her to the bed, drawing a renewed panicky scream as her thoughts instantly jumped from the strange dream of another life, to genuine memories of the mental institution that she had spent so much time trapped inside of.
“Dakota!” a voice called out from nearby. “Dakota, it’s okay, it’s you! Dakota, look!”
Still thrashing in panic even as those words penetrated, the girl opened her eyes and looked around wildly. The vision finally settled. She wasn’t back in the asylum. She wasn’t strapped down by sturdy leather and buckles being poked and prodded by the dispassionate doctors. She was in a motel room, in a regular bed. And the things holding her down were vines. The room was filled with plants of all shapes and sizes. The foliage was so thick that the person at the door, who had called out to pull her from her panic, couldn’t easily push their way through.
They were right. She was doing this. Somehow, Dakota had been so frightened in her dream that she had subconsciously summoned these plants, which had formed a defensive shield around her. They were trying to protect her as well as they could, reacting to that overwhelming fear by practically wrapping her into a cocoon as they blocked all access to the room itself.
It was more plants than Dakota had ever consciously controlled. Far more. Something about the animalistic terror of her strange nightmare had made the power she’d… she’d gained from Kwur do so much more than she’d managed to intentionally make it do in the days since she had stopped actively trying to suppress and ignore it.
Or maybe she hadn’t really totally stopped trying to suppress it, regardless of what she’d said to Miranda and Avalon. Much as she wanted to help them, wanted to help Eden’s Garden in general, she was still afraid of what this power was capable of. And horrified by the monster it had come from. Kwur made her family kill each other. She had killed… she had murdered…
Snapping out of that with some effort, Dakota closed her eyes. The panic kept trying to take over again, making it hard to concentrate. But, with some effort, she focused on the vines, thinking about making them relax. Then she shifted that thought from making them relax to simply reassuring them, imagining herself gently petting and praising them for the help. Slowly, the tense, tight grip of the vines relented, and she was finally able to sit up in the bed.
It took more effort and a minute of concentration, but the rest of the plants blocking Dakota from the doorway eventually shifted away. Quickly, the girl scrambled from the bed, leaving the manipulated plants behind as she raced across the now-open space.
The person at the door stepped back, giving Dakota space to escape the room and reach the open air of the parking lot beyond the door. “Are you okay?” he asked gently, voice uncertain.
Now that she was in the parking lot, out of that room full of plants that had been trying (in their own way) to protect her, Dakota could breathe. She finally looked up, focusing on the person who had snapped her out of that blinding panic.
His name was Noyade, a seventeen-year-old heavily tanned boy with long black hair, originally from California before being recruited by Eden’s Garden years earlier. He’d been working alongside Dakota earlier that day as the two of them tried to work on one of the special apple vines that the rebels had brought with them from their giant tree. He had several powers revolving around controlling water, which gave Dakota a chance to get down to the ocean floor and try to coax the vine they’d been given to work with into growing.
So far, it hadn’t worked, and Dakota had needed to sleep. Which led to… this.
Hurriedly, her head bobbed. “Sorry, sorry.” A wave of confused shame had washed over her. “I just–I had a bad dream. I didn’t mean to wake you up, or–”
Noyade shook his head. “Dude, don’t worry about it. It’s fine. I was already awake, just trying to take a walk over by the pool and practice a bit. I think it–are you sure you’re okay?”
For a moment, Dakota hesitated. It had been so realistic. She had felt like she was there, fighting a dragon, being burned by that dragon. She had been so furious with the other thanes for refusing to keep to their word, for being cowards. It was all she could do to–
“It was just a dream,” she quickly blurted, forcing the thoughts down. If she said it outloud, maybe it would be easier to believe. Shifting uncomfortably, she rubbed her shoulder. “Do you think I woke anyone else up?”
“Doubt it,” Noyade pointed out easily. “Everyone’s using magic to silence outside sounds that aren’t a threat. Pretty sure you could scream at the top of your lungs without them hearing. And the ones that aren’t asleep are either out patrolling or… or working.”
Working, right. Working on their own attempt at making the vines work. Because the Garden rebels weren’t putting all their eggs in the ‘have Dakota fix it’ basket. They had a bunch of different tests and trials going on. In fact, Dakota was pretty sure most of the rebel Victors didn’t exactly buy into the idea that she’d end up being the one to make the vines grow. They were humoring Avalon and Miranda and giving her a chance to try with one of the plants.
Noyade seemed to think that she would be upset at the idea that no one thought she could do it, so he kept apologizing or sounding awkward whenever the fact that others were trying their own thing came up. But Dakota was really hoping, almost praying, that they would manage it. Then she wouldn’t feel so much pressure.
Instead, nothing anyone was doing seemed to work. And Dakota felt more and more like she had to do something about it. Like it actually would be up to her. Because something was blocking the plants from growing. Something was preventing the vines from taking root the way they were supposed to, the way they had been enchanted to. They should grow, they wanted to grow. But something was stopping them, and she couldn’t figure out what.
After a brief pause, Noyade nodded over his shoulder. “You wanna take a walk down to the beach and see how our friend’s doing? You know, just in case?”
The vine. He wanted to check on the vine, since they were both awake. With a quick nod as she pushed down her own doubts and insecurities, Dakota agreed, “Sure, okay.” Maybe the fact that she’d subconsciously summoned all those plants to the room was a sign or something?
Or maybe it was just wishful thinking. Either way, she was completely awake now and wouldn’t be sleeping again anytime soon. So they might as well go check on their vine.
As she left the motel parking lot and walked across the street with the older boy, on the way down toward the beach, Dakota used the phone she’d been given to send a text to Avalon and Miranda. Not that she expected them to respond. Apparently there had been some huge fight involving a really nasty necromancer and that Flick girl who had been lost for awhile. From what Dakota had heard, the good guys won, and everyone was celebrating. She was invited, but didn’t feel like she was really a part of that. Besides, being around lots of loud people was hard. She was too… twitchy. It wasn’t safe. Too many people, too many loud noises, too many… things.
Still, she sent a message saying where they were going, just in case. Then Dakota and Noyade jogged through the parking lot connected to the beach before reaching the sand itself. This three hundred yard space had been magically cordoned off. No Bystanders could get there, or even notice that only this small group seemed to be using it. The Eden’s Garden rebels wanted their vine tests to be as undisturbed and safe as possible.
There was, however, someone there on the beach as the two of them came into view. Which, at first didn’t seem too odd. After all, Dakota knew there were other people working on their own vine experiments.
But something made her stop short at the sight of the person standing in the water. Something made her hand snap out to catch Noyade’s arm, bringing him to a halt. Together, the two watched as the figure in the water emerged… and kept emerging.
The moon and the lamps that had been set up along the beach helped to illuminate the figure, though he was still in heavy shadows. He was riding a horse. It was a tall man riding a horse up out of the waves. A horse that had been under the water? That was possible, but why? Why would he be riding a horse under the water? And what… what was wrong with him? The figure looked wrong. It almost–it almost looked like he was attached to the–
A hand quickly grabbed her arm, squeezing tight. Noyade’s voice was a hoarse whisper, one marked by a sort of primal, animalistic fear. “Dakota, run. Use your alarm spell, call for help.”
She didn’t hesitate. She didn’t question it. Going through what Dakota had, seeing the things she had seen, the time when she would have dumbly stood in place asking what that thing was, or what the boy was talking about had long-since passed. The instant he told her to run and sound the alarm, Dakota was already pivoting. She began to run back the way they had come, digging in her pocket for the small bell-shaped piece of metal that had been given to her. Palming it, the girl stammered the command word, only for nothing to happen. Because of the stammering. Forcing back the fear, she tried again, snapping the word out. That time, the piece of metal grew warm in her palm, and she knew it was sending the alert out to all the Heretics here. They would get up, they would be here any second, and whatever that thing was–
Something caught hold of her ankle in mid-sprint, yanking backward to make the girl faceplant against the ground even as a scream escaped her. It felt like wet seaweed, only stronger. So strong she felt it almost crush the bone. An instant later, she was yanked upside down into the air and held aloft. She could see back toward the beach. A supernaturally long, reddish-black arm, almost like a tentacle, had stretched a good hundred feet up in order to grab her. And now that thing had hold of her, the arm was pulling back, hauling the screaming, struggling Dakota with it.
That screaming only got worse, as she was hauled back to the beach and saw Noyade. Or rather, his body. The boy’s headless corpse had been impaled against one of the fence posts, and now lay limp there, spread-eagle as if in supplication.
Still suspended upside down, Dakota was hauled up to be face-to-face with the creature that had killed Noyade so quickly and effortlessly. It was the man riding the horse. Except it wasn’t a man or a horse, she realized. It was both. It was a horse, one somewhat larger than normal, more like one of those Clydesdale horses, or even very slightly bigger than that. The ‘man’ who sat atop it was actually just a torso growing out of its back. Almost like a centaur, except instead of a horse body with a man from the waist up where the head should be, it was a fully-formed horse with the top half of a man where a normal rider would go.
The horse part of the creature was bad enough on its own. It seemed to have no skin, only muscle and bone. Instead of two eyes, it had a single, oversized one in the middle of its face. Its mouth was large even for its enormous body, and its teeth were closer to a shark than an actual horse. Row after row of jagged, deadly fangs that were thoroughly revealed, as the thing’s mouth was open. Because she wasn’t being held by an arm or a hand as she’d thought. It was a tongue. A tongue that had shot out of the horse’s mouth, and now held her aloft in the air by the ankle while the horse seemed to cackle, its shoulders heaving with a sound akin to the screeching of an old woman, or a screech owl.
As for the humanoid half of the monster, things didn’t get any better there. It, like the horse, was skinless, its bare muscle visible to the open air. The head had no face, no eyes, no mouth. There was a second mouth beyond the one belonging to the horse part, but it was on the humanoid torso, and much larger than it should have been. Large enough that, as that second mouth opened, the entire top half of the torso moved with it, tilting backward. Within that oversized mouth was a smaller, whitish object that it kept rolling between its teeth and tongue.
Held aloft that way, Dakota belatedly realized that the creature was showing her the object in its second mouth. Only then, as she hung petrified in terror, did the girl realize what she was being shown.
It was Noyade’s head. Or rather, his skull, with the skin and all the… the juicy bits slurped free to leave mostly just the bone part.
Once it knew that she had seen and understood, the torso-mouth spat the head out, sending it out into the sand where it rolled to a stop against an old piece of driftwood, about fifteen feet from the body it had belonged to.
For a moment, Dakota had been too terrified to shout. Now, her fear had worked its way all the way around once more, as a shrill scream filled the air. Not that the monster cared. Now that it had shown her the head, the creature simply opened its torso-mouth wide, angling to drop her in. Now that it had finished the snack, it would take Dakota as the main course.
An instant before it would have released Dakota, aloud, echoing gunshot rang out. The bullet, blazing with light from some unknown power, cut through the tongue just above Dakota’s ankle. She dropped with a scream toward that mouth, but only fell a few inches before something else caught hold of her. It was a coat, or part of one. The coat caught the falling girl, wrapping itself tightly around Dakota before yanking her away from the monster.
The man who stood there looked like a cowboy. A very old one, with a heavily lined face and a wide-brimmed hat that sat low, close to his steely eyes. It was his revolver which had taken the single shot that blew the monster’s tongue away. The long, leather duster he wore had extended itself out at a thought from the man, catching hold of Dakota and safely pulling her away from the thing that had been trying to eat her.
His name was Jack Childs, and he was one of the Victors of the Fate’s Shepherds tribe. The moment that Dakota was safely deposited on the sand, he aimed that revolver her way, pulling the trigger before she could so much as scream once more.
He wasn’t killing her. The shot that he had fired sent a magic bullet that exploded halfway to the girl, creating a glowing forcefield around her huddled form.
“The mistake you made,” Childs informed the horse-man creature, “was killing someone I’d grown more than a mite fond of. See, you was always gonna die here. But Noyade? Noyade makes it personal.”
The creature let out that terrible scream once more, rearing back on its hindlegs before it started galloping toward them, arms flailing. But in that moment, something happened. From Dakota’s perspective, the revolver in Childs’ hand turned into a machine gun, firing hundreds of shots in the span of a bare handful of seconds. His hands were a blur of motion, as the girl belatedly realized that he was pulling the trigger six times, popping the revolver open, producing a new speed loader from nowhere, feeding it into the weapon, clicking it shut, and continuing to fire all faster than her eyes could process. He did it with so much speed that the bullets came just as quickly as they would from an automatic weapon.
And they weren’t just normal bullets either. Each shot caused a small, yet powerful explosion. So powerful that, despite the fact that Dakota was a good fifty feet away and each was only about an inch across, she still felt the heat from every single one. She still felt force from each tiny explosion through the forcefield that was protecting her. Not a lot. Just enough to be a firm shove against her, enough to knock the girl down if she hadn’t already been lying on the ground. Enough heat to almost be painful.
She felt all of that through the Victor-created forcefield and from fifty feet away. Each shot was like that, each tiny explosion creating enough of a shockwave that she could still feel it. And this thing was being hit by hundreds of them.
The monster was halted in mid-charge and sent staggering backward. Yet, it didn’t die. Despite taking hundreds of shots from a weapon wielded by someone as powerful as a Victor, themselves roughly equivalent to a Crossroads Counselor, the creature barely seemed wounded. The shots were keeping it busy, making it stagger and reel away, but they weren’t killing it.
Yet, despite the fact that the thing obviously wasn’t dead, Childs finally stopped firing. The revolver spun on his finger before being coolly deposited back into its holster at his hip.
The monster, upon realizing it wasn’t being shot anymore, rallied immediately. Both its torso and horse mouths opened to scream at them, bracing itself to lunge.
And, in the next instant, Childs snapped his fingers while simultaneously stepping in front of the forcefield that surrounded Dakota. As he did so, duster sweeping up to block her view and save her from being totally blinded, night suddenly turned into day. There was a flash that seemed to sweep clear through the entire city, bright as the sun itself. That flash lasted for a solid three or four seconds before fading.
The forcefield dropped, as Childs stepped aside. And Dakota saw the space where the monster had been. It was a crater, with sand blasted up and outward in every direction. Sand that had been frozen in mid-air, like dropping a rock into it and then stopping the sand that flew up before it could settle back on the ground. Like throwing a stone into water and freezing the splash.
Glass, Dakota realized. The sand that had been blasted away from the center of the explosion had turned into a glass-like structure. A sculpture of sorts. And in the middle of that sculpture lay the scattered bits and pieces of the monster itself, blown apart from the inside.
Facing her, Childs extended a hand. His voice was grim. “Are you okay? Sorry, took a bit to get a couple bullets through that thing’s hide so I could trigger them from the inside.”
Dakota, in turn, stared at him. “Tha-that explosion was from a couple bullets?”
The man arched an eyebrow. “Five or six. I use really strong bullets.”
Her mouth opened to respond, only to spot the human half of the shattered horse monster. It was hauling itself up over the sand-turned-glass, dozens of wiggling, bleeding tentacles where a human’s legs would have been serving to hurl it into the air toward them.
She never had a chance to scream. Childs had already turned, gun back in his hand and extended. That time, however, he didn’t fire a bullet. Instead, a literal bolt of lightning leapt from the barrel, tearing through the lunging monster before arcing off into the sky with a deafening clap of thunder.
The humanoid torso splattered like a watermelon, the smell of burnt flesh filling the air to mix with the scent of ozone from the lightning.
Once more, Childs stowed his gun and turned back to her. That time, he gently took her hand in his own calloused grip, helping the girl to her feet. “Sorry,” he said quietly, “but I guess we know what’s been messing with our vines now.”
Dakota, for her part, clung tightly to the man. She wouldn’t cry. She wouldn’t cry. She would not cry. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she babbled helplessly, shoulders shaking. Noyade. He was dead. He was dead just like her family. She got close to people, she liked people, and then they died. They died. They always died.
“Wha-what was that thing? It-it’s dead now, right? It’s gone. We’re safe? What–what about the vines? Will they–will they grow now?”
For a moment, Childs was quiet as he held the girl close to him. “That thing,” he answered finally, “is called a Nuckelavee. Yes, it’s dead. But… but the Nuckelavee, they’re just minions. Thugs.”
Swallowing hard, Dakota asked, in a quiet, tentative voice, “Wh-what… what are they minions of?”
In response, Childs turned, keeping his hand firmly on the girl’s shoulder. He looked out into the water, voice very quiet. “Something a hell of a lot worse. A creature powerful enough to take this planet apart if it ever gets free of its cage in the lowest, darkest depths of the ocean. But it can reach out of that cage.
“And now we have its attention.”