It had been one hundred and eighty-two days since perpetual night had fallen, and two weeks since my transformation. After getting bitten by an interdimensional panther, also known as a night stalker, and injecting myself with an experimental antidote, I now have some fun, new abilities. And freakish, red eyes.
I could say I’m a victim of some straight-up comic book shit.
A faint white circle floated above, marking the position of the sun, but none of its light reached the world below. I plodded along on a crumbling highway toward Sioux Falls, South Dakota, as I made my way through the Eternal Dusk that had consumed the landscape. Faint shuffles and snarls sounded from somewhere in the darkness. I couldn’t tell how close they were. Nothing caught my eye as I glanced around, but that didn't reassure me.
As I hiked, I clutched my detective badge and police identification card where they sat in the right pocket of my black leather jacket. For a moment, I pulled them out and glanced down at them.
Isabella Espinoza was written at the top of my ID.
I don’t really know why I kept these relics of my past. They didn’t have much use anymore. Maybe they just reminded me of the person I was before the world went to hell.
My attention turned back to the cart a couple of hundred yards ahead of me. Torches burned along the top of the wagon, next to a pair of people. The flame cast them and their horses in a warm glow that shone like a beacon in the dark purple night around them. The flame would keep the night stalkers away, but other predators would see it as an invitation. A man with a rifle strapped to his back strode next to the cart. Probably a guard. A trio of childish giggles escaped the wagon before the guard told them to keep it down.
Perhaps the most invasive change I’d had since my encounter with a night stalker earlier was my increased sense of smell. I could detect the scent of shit from the pack animals ahead. Crops rotting in the fields. Sweat from the people in the wagon. Smoke from the torches. All of these odors intertwined for a discordant olfactory symphony in my nostrils.
I padded along the road as I kept a respectful distance from the cart ahead of me. We just happened to be going the same way, and I didn’t want to alarm them. Their horses’ footsteps crunched the asphalt as a tempting offer to any predators paying attention.
Subtle huffs and puffs accompanied the snorts of the horses. More human breathing filled the air than the number that I saw, though. I counted the people with the cart again.
One. Two. Three adults. Plus, the three children.
Exactly the number I had counted with the wagon before.
But more breaths than that hit my ears, along with a subtle, but constant, high-pitched note that made me wince.
A shuffle sounded from the shadow of a crumbled barn at the side of the road. Three silhouettes slipped out of the ruined husk and drifted toward the cart with weapons in their hands. They all wore matching dark leather jackets.
The people on the wagon ahead did not react. With their mere human senses, of course, they didn’t see or hear anything nasty.
Fuck. I guess it’s up to me then.
I crouched down and sped up my pace. I kept my steps soft on the road and my presence hidden.
At least I didn’t have a torch to light me up and draw attention to me. Seeing in the dark was one of the benefits of having been bitten by a cursed creature from a portal to some unknown dark dimension.
Never let anyone say I wasn’t an optimist.
I stalked the raiders. At five hundred yards back, I didn’t want to blow my chance to surprise the ambushers yet.
One raider slipped around behind the cart to the other side of the road and flanked the group of unaware civilians. I snuck off the road onto the side with the two other raiders.
Ahead, the raiders drew guns and aimed them at the caravan as they approached.
“Hey, you,” one of them called to the travelers as they emerged into the light of the wagon’s torches. “Stop where you are.”
Even from here, I could tell that this guy hadn’t brushed his teeth in ages. Maybe not ever. He was certainly a fan of garlic and onions.
The cart halted.
The stocky guard pulled the gun from his back and hurried to interpose himself between the cart and the raider who was talking.
“Who are you? What do you want?” asked the man driving the cart. A prominent hooked nose dominated his profile.
“We want what you have,” the lead raider said in a gruff voice. A scruffy beard covered the lower half of his face.
“Let me handle this,” said the guard.
“The children? You can’t have them,” said the driver, ignoring his own guard. A squeak in his voice betrayed his fear. “We won’t let you take them.”
A low rumble of a laugh. “What are you going to do to stop us?”
“Dad,” said a woman’s voice. The other person on the cart leaned over, a mess of wavy hair around her shoulders, and put a hand on his arm. “Maybe they’ll take something else. It’s not worth fighting.”
The man ignored his daughter and puffed out his chest. “We have hired security. Get them, Brutus.”
The guard raised his gun. A bang from the other side of the road filled the air. The guard slumped to the ground.
The children shrieked and dropped down low in the wagon.
“Ah, seems you wasted your money,” the lead raider said.
I pushed through the grass on the side of the road as I snuck toward the bandits. I only needed a bit longer so I could get close enough.
“I still won’t let you take these children.” The cart driver jumped down and scrambled for the gun his bodyguard had dropped.
His daughter ducked behind the cart for cover.
The man pointed the gun at the raider. “Get away from here. I’ll shoot.”
Another low laugh from the lead bandit. “This is fun. I always enjoy the opportunity to play with my food.”
He waved past the wagon. The other raider, who had flanked the cart, emerged into the torchlight behind the driver. His long hair was pulled back into a loose ponytail.
The ponytail raider tapped the driver on the shoulder. The man spun around and waved his gun back and forth between the different attackers. Torchlight flickered in his terrified wide eyes. A scowl scrunched his face.
“Fine.” He threw the gun to the ground. “Take them. Please let us walk away.”
“After that?” the lead raider said as he cocked his head and flashed a sinister smile. “I’m afraid you’ve worked us up a bit too much for us to take our pick and walk away. Jeff, hold him still.”
The ponytail raider grappled the driver with his arm around his throat. The driver thrashed back and forth. He jabbed his elbow into the raider’s ribs, but Ponytail held strong.
The raider leader marched up to them and circled around the pair. “The thing about foreplay is that once you get something going, you need to finish it.”
I crawled through a bush, beside the third raider who stood watching at the side of the road. Torchlight flickered across his shiny bald head. I considered drawing my pistol from my shoulder holster, but I wanted to take out at least one of them before they knew I was there. A gun would make too much noise.
The lead raider paced back to the front of the driver, and then wound up and slammed his fist into the driver’s gut. The driver doubled over.
The raider drew a knife from his belt, pulled the driver up by his hair, and traced the blade along the driver’s jaw. “It’s been a while since I’ve had the time to properly enjoy a kill.”
I leaned back, and then sprang at the bald raider in front of me. I drove my shoulder straight into his right side.
One of his ribs broke with a snap, and he yelped.
I grasped his gun and wrenched on it, but his grip refused to yield. I kicked the side of his leg, and his knee popped out of place.
Baldy relinquished his grip on the gun and fell to the ground. As he clutched his leg, I retrieved his rifle, then struck him across the temple with the butt. He went limp.
I pivoted and aimed the rifle toward the road.
“Drop your weapons,” I called out.
As the raiders turned their attention to me, the driver and his daughter used the distraction and dashed away, taking cover in a ditch along the opposite side.
The lead raider dove behind the cart.
Poor Jeff, though. I almost felt bad for him. He was stuck in the middle of the road, frozen with his face framed perfectly within my sights.
Almost feeling bad didn’t stop me from squeezing the trigger.
His head popped, and he collapsed into a pool of his own blood and brains.
The tang of iron hit my nostrils. My heart pounded as the smell roused a slight hunger within the beast part of me.
Don’t worry, though, I wasn’t a fucking cannibal.
The lead raider poked out from behind the cart and took a shot.
As the muzzle flashed, I dove into the ditch on my side of the road. A hot pain sliced across my left shoulder. I rolled onto my right side as I hit the ground and clutched my hand to the bloody cut the bullet had carved.
My new reflexes were fast, but not, apparently, faster than a bullet.
A second shot struck the top of the ditch with a puff of dirt.
I scrambled over to the body of the unconscious raider and shoved him down into the ditch. Another shot zinged through the air as I dove back into cover. With a tug, I ripped the sleeve from the raider’s shirt.
I chomped down on one end of the sleeve as I tied it around my shoulder. The fabric soon dampened with blood.
Why did I even get involved? Were strangers really worth getting shot?
I guess I’ll always be a detective. To goddamn serve and protect.
I slid back up toward the top of the ditch and chanced a peek over the lip. A splatter of dirt next to my cheek made me regret that choice.
Normally, I would take blind potshots down at the raider, but I had lost track of the driver and his daughter. Besides, the cart was still full of kids. It wouldn’t do to accidentally kill people as I tried to help them.
I ran my hand over the ground, and it scraped against something hard. I clutched it and picked it up. A simple rock.
But the right rock in the wrong place could make all the difference in the world.
I chucked it through the darkness up and over the road. With the thud of its impact, I popped up. The raider’s attention had flicked toward where the rock landed.
I took a shot.
Nothing. Only the click of the trigger.
I yanked on the action to clear the breach, but it was stuck.
Well, screw me sideways.
I tossed the weapon away and dove back to the ground as the raider turned back. Three more shots peppered the dirt.
“I don’t know who you are,” the raider called, “but if you come out now, I might be nice and kill you quick.”
Great. A talker.
“Why don’t you save us both some time and pain?” I called back. “Tuck your tail between your legs and run away while you still have a tail to tuck.”
I scooted sideways. The dry grass scratched against my stomach.
“Maybe I’ll let you watch while I play with these fine people before I kill you,” he said.
I slid up the side of the ditch and peeked at the road. The cart was now between me and the lead raider.
I sprinted across the road. The cart blurred toward me. As I reached it, I sprang up and vaulted over the cart.
My feet planted on the ground right next to the raider. I drew my knife from my belt and barred my teeth.
In the flickering light of the torches that had fallen on the ground, his gaze met mine. His face paled, and his eyes widened.
“What are you?” he asked.
I answered with the flash of my blade as I plunged my knife into his gut, and then drew it across his belly.
He sank to the ground as his hands clutched his stomach. Blood poured out between his fingers.
Something hard and heavy struck me across the back and knocked me face-first to the ground. I flipped over and stared up at a mountain of a man. His shoulders bulged under a matching set of the same leathers as the other raiders. His meaty hands clutched a long pipe.
I had missed a fourth breath lurking in the darkness.
“Where have you been hiding?” I asked.
“Nearby,” he said with a grunt. “I watch for anyone who tries something funny.”
He hauled the pipe over his head, then swung it down.
I rolled out of the way as it slammed into the dirt. My knife still in my hand, I sprang onto my feet and lunged toward him.
As I thrust my blade at his torso, he slapped the back of my hand. The knife tumbled into the dirt.
Another swing of his club. I dodged to the side, but his hand jutted out and grabbed my throat.
He lifted me off my feet and snarled.
I pried my fingers under his, but they wouldn’t budge. I pounded on his arm and swung for his face, but his reach extended beyond my own.
I pulled my legs back, then kicked them forward into his chest. He stumbled back a step. Then, we both collapsed to the ground, with Mountain Man on top of me.
That could have gone better.
He gave a quick shake of his head and straddled me. As I was pinned beneath his weight, he placed the pipe on my throat and leaned onto it.
I gagged, and then gasped, and then nothing. I couldn’t breathe at all.
Against his weight and strength, I didn’t stand a chance of pushing him off. Not in this position, at least.
I thrust a finger from each hand into his eyes. He clenched his eyes shut as he leaned harder into my throat.
Red and black crept into the sides of my vision. I didn’t have long before I would pass out.
I dug my fingernails into the corner of each eye near the nose. They popped into the sockets with a squish.
The gigantic man released his pipe and roared in pain as he reeled back, his hands clutching his face. Blood dripped down his cheeks from his gouged eyes.
I scooted backward and retrieved my knife from where it had fallen. I popped onto my feet. With a solid kick, I knocked him onto his back.
As he groaned, I leapt and landed with all of my weight as I thrust my blade into his chest. His cries stopped.
A small part of me felt a burst of joy at the violence, and then the rest was horrified by the thought. My transformation had left an unfortunate impression on my emotions, on top of the physical changes.
I turned away from the dead body and sank to my knees. I wiped my blade on the grass as I scanned for any other raiders I’d missed.
No movement. Only the breathing of the animals, the driver, and his daughter, along with the cries of the children.
With the adrenaline of the fight fading, I rose to my feet and trudged up to the driver and his daughter as they climbed out of the ditch.
They staggered back. The man brandished a stick he must have found. “Stay away from us.”
I rolled my eyes and held my hands up. “Don’t be an idiot. Do I look like one of them?”
“I—I don’t know what you look like.” His voice trembled. “You tore that man’s eyes out.”
“And that raider was about to carve your face like a Thanksgiving turkey. Would it make you feel better if you could see me?”
I bent down, snatched one of the fallen torches, and then held it to light my face.
The merchants recoiled. “What are you?”
“You’ve never seen a Latina before?”
“No, not that. Your eyes,” he said. “What’s wrong with your eyes?”
Oh, yeah. I sometimes forget that part.
“All the better to see you with, my dear.” I couldn’t help giving them a nasty grin.
The man waved his stick in my face. “You get out of here and leave us be. We don’t need help from monsters.”
He spat toward my feet.
I winced and looked away as I swallowed my pride. When I was sure I’d hidden the hurt he’d caused, I turned back to him.
“Should I leave you alone the next time you’re attacked by raiders?”
He scowled as he paced around me on his way back to his cart.
“You all have a safe journey.” I passed the torch to the daughter, who had remained silent. “And you can sleep better knowing I’m behind you.”
The man’s pale face suggested that he would, in fact, not sleep better with that knowledge.
That damned high-pitched noise still screeched in my ears. It came from the lead raider’s body. I kicked his corpse onto its back and rummaged through his pockets and pouches. My hand brushed against a small box of plastic.
I pulled it out. Just a speaker and a button. I pressed the button, and the sound stopped. Another search of his pockets didn’t reveal anything else. No clues about why they had tried to kidnap a bunch of kids.
With nothing else to do, I strode back down the road and waited for the cart to continue its journey. Then, I resumed my own trip to the city of Sioux Falls. Or whatever remained of it as the Eternal Dusk had spread. I needed David, an old crime lab buddy of mine. He should have some answers about what had happened to me. He’d better.
An hour later, I reached a gate in the makeshift wall that surrounded a small portion of the southern part of the town. Most of the city had been abandoned to the darkness, but a handful of walled communities had popped up, allowing survivors to live in relative safety. This one was called Glenview Station, after the park that took up the center of the settlement.
I waved up at the guards that kept watch, and they let me in. The torchlit streets were mostly empty. A few scattered people went to and from their homes. Within the protection of the walls, the houses had held up well, though the grass had long since died in their lawns. I followed the familiar route to the house that David used as a home and workshop.
I knocked on the door and waited, pacing outside David's place. After a few seconds with no reaction from within, I plodded back up to the door and pounded on it again. A moment later, the latch clicked, and the door opened enough for David to peek out. Large glasses stretched across his round face, perched atop a bulbous nose.
His eyes widened in surprise. "Isabella?"
His gaze met mine for a fraction of a second before avoiding any more direct contact.
I flashed him what I hoped was a scary smile. "You sound surprised, David. Can I come in?"
I stepped forward, expecting him to open the door, but stopped when he didn't.
His eyes darted around, looking behind me. "Is anyone else out there?"
"No, just me. And we need to talk." I lifted my hand to the door, ready to push my way in if necessary.
"Yes, yes, fine." He opened the door and ushered me in before closing and locking the door.
As he shuffled in behind me, I whirled around, grabbed him by the collar, and shoved him against the wall. "What the hell did you do to me?"