Gritting my teeth, I ripped the manticore quill from my thigh and leaned against the wall. A tarnished hall sconce bumped my head, and peeled wallpaper tickled my neck. The venomous spine I rolled between my fingers was small, from a young manticore’s tail. It would make a normal human comatose. My eyelids drooped, then I noticed the bloody hole in my already threadbare jeans and irritation drowned my fatigue.
The door beside me creaked open and a finger pointed through the crack. “It went that way, lady.”
Fresh claw marks gouged the walls and viscous, dark manticore blood trailed to the exit of the hallway. The stench unique to manticores hung heavy in the air. An elephant-sized hole loomed over a broken glass door that led to a rooftop pool. Of course it went that way.
“Just catching my breath, thanks.” I followed the stink.
Everyone else kept their doors closed. Only idiots poked their heads into hallways when monsters roamed a building. Well, idiots and me. At least I got paid to play with monsters. Since my partner never showed tonight, I’d get all the money. Provided I took care of the manticore without killing myself.
The manticore had attacked the old Sheraton Hotel on McGee Street, now low-income housing for people who couldn’t or wouldn’t leave Kansas City. In the dilapidated lobby, I had cut off his spiny, weaponized tail. He had retreated upstairs, but I held no illusions that he was finished with me. He probably used the alone time to grow a new tail—or three. The abilities of manticores were still a mystery to me.
My katana ready, I stepped into the pool area. The smell of earth instead of chlorine filled my sensitive nose. In the hotel’s heyday, the pool was a fancy indoor/outdoor affair, but today’s tenants couldn’t keep up maintenance. Plus, manticores don’t make good swimming buddies. The indoor half was a converted solarium filled with dirt and dying shrubbery. Outside, the rest of the cracked, concrete pool remained empty. Finances were pretty dire when people ran out of dirt.
The stars on this calm, cool evening twinkled on the purpling western horizon. I expected the manticore to jump from the darkness of the pool, but the roof stayed quiet and undisturbed—aside from overturned plastic plants and a pissed-off tomcat. He hissed at me from his perch on the wall. I hissed back. He leapt into the shadows since my fangs were bigger than his.
Halfway to the edge of the roof, the spurs of my riding boots screeched against concrete when I stopped short. There’s no mistaking a manticore’s voice. It resonates like competing horns in the brass section of a hearing-impaired orchestra. Shaking my ringing head, I dug a pair of ear plugs from the pocket of my hoodie.
Armed with earplugs and my sword, I approached the edge. The manticore wasn’t on the roof with me, but I couldn’t see him despite the barred windows in the surrounding brick wall. The bars would have made interesting tan lines back when sunbathers populated the roof instead of stray cats and beast slayers.
The two-inch heels on my boots made me six feet tall—eye-level with the top of the wall. I jumped to the top. My spurs clinked on the ledge as I landed in a crouch with sword overhead and right arm out for balance. Across the street, on top of an abandoned office building, the manticore’s giant blue eyes widened—I was awake instead of napping like a properly tranquilized meal. Two stories below, the street was deserted. Mythological beasts had invaded the American frontier long enough that curiosity no longer killed.
Only a beautiful, glassed-in walkway shaped like a right triangle separated us. It curved over the streets and ran along buildings to connect an area once congested with traffic. The manticore crouched, muscles rippling beneath the russet fur of his lion-like body. Claws as long as my fingers dug into the roof. He still lacked his tail, which made me smile.
He was built for pouncing, but he couldn’t make it across the four-lane street. As if responding to my doubt, he roared again. His human face topped with a red mane and beard transformed into a gaping maw filled with three rows of sharp teeth. My earplugs muted the cacophony, but my chest vibrated. The decay riding his breath hit me in a sickening cloud. Half the panes in the walkway shattered, the glass tinkling musically to the pavement.
Despite my earplugs, I heard the distinct groan of straining metal joints. The roof of the walkway bent-in unnaturally. The manticore had used it as a hopping point to get across. Judging by the way he eyed my appetizing self, he intended to do it again. Adding my weight to that walkway—suspended fifteen feet above the road—was not a good idea. Yet catching him mid-leap was a chance I couldn’t dismiss.
His eyes focused on me. His head lowered and his front paws stretched before him. A large drop of saliva fell from his lips, and before it plopped on the concrete, the manticore jumped. All four paws briefly touched the walkway’s apex at the same time. His eyes never left me. Half a heartbeat later he was back in the air, flying toward me. I jumped to meet him.
I leapt below him, so as I shoved my katana into his soft underbelly, I dropped through the now glass-free roof. His traveling body did the job of disemboweling itself before I landed. My blade sliced through his abdomen like gelatin. His slimy insides dropped around me. I forced my dinner back where it belonged, dodging the biggest pieces.
The manticore’s body hit the end of the walkway. It collapsed, pitching me toward the street. I lost my earplugs and my breath when I fell to the floor. Keeping my sword high, I slid on glass and manticore parts halfway to the street before I regained my footing. Then, I ran down the tilted walkway like a sailor on shore leave. Raising my katana, I used my momentum to slice off his head: standard protocol for anything but a hydra.
Smiling, I relaxed. I couldn’t perfectly time such a scenario again in a hundred years. I was Andromeda Bochs: slayer of monsters and timing genius. Then Atlas broke the horizon, and my satisfaction faded. In the shape of a human heart, the radioactive rock glowed red as if true blood pulsed through the ventricles.
My first reaction to the asteroid-turned-moon that orbited Earth was always physical. My skin tingled, tiny sparks igniting in every pore and hairs reaching skyward. But my heart, just below the set of scars on my chest, dropped to the ground.
Sometimes, I wondered what the world was like fifty years ago when the asteroid hurtled through space on a path to destroy Earth. Instead of colliding with the world, it slowed down when it entered the solar system and kept slowing until it pushed the moon out of orbit to take its place. Scientists discovered that the silica in the Earth’s crust repelled Atlas, citing that as the reason it hadn’t crashed through the atmosphere. They’d learned little else in the half-century since.
Tonight, I felt more frustration toward Atlas than curiosity, and I stomped my foot. “Damn it.”
Atlas’s magnetic flares meant that while it hovered on this side of the world, anything more complex than a refrigerator wouldn’t work. The truck I had in the parking garage was now useless, and I’d have to carry the manticore to headquarters. Patrolling Kansas City brought me a paltry salary, but commissioned kills earned the real money. Without the head, I had no official credit for the kill, which meant no commission. No commission, no new jeans.
Removing a soft cloth from my pocket, I carefully cleaned the blade of my katana before sheathing it in its saya and dropping the cloth on the manticore’s body.
My eyes sharpened on the dark entrance to the parking garage and made out two child-size forms. “What?” I sounded pretty grouchy, but then, while the name ‘Evolutionary’ wasn’t bad, their tone hadn’t been polite, either. Plus, nighttime was for monsters, not kids.
“Is that thing gonna grow a new head?”
I made a show of studying the manticore’s body, placing my chin in one hand. Finally, I shrugged and looked back at the shadows. “Probably not, but I’d go home, anyway.”
The kids disappeared, and the sound of running feet faded, hopefully going inside. I braided a large section of the manticore’s mane into a rope then wrapped it around my hand and started jogging. At least the headquarters for the Mythical Creatures Elimination Squad was less than half a mile down the street. The so-called evolution may have given me super strength, speed, and endurance, but I still had an economical streak when it came to physical activity.
As I passed Washington Park, I saluted the bronze statue of George Washington mounted on a horse. Under the wild growth of plant life, a pedestal supported him, but he looked as though he trudged through piles of greenery instead of the snow at Valley Forge. Even in early March, all of the city parks were overrun with lush trees, vines, and flowers—compliments of Atlas radiation. The city didn’t bother maintaining parks anymore. What little money it had for maintenance went to cleaning monster messes like the one I’d just made.
I trotted down Pershing Road, the massive head bouncing behind me until I got to the circle drive in front of one of the few maintained public buildings in Kansas City: Union Station. The front of Union Station remained quiet and empty. The back of the giant, two-centuries-old building still functioned as a train station. Atlas flares and flying monsters had ruined air travel, making the station even busier. Half of the time, the train engines ran on steam, just like the First Frontier Era.
We lived in the Second Frontier Era, now, but no one lined up their wagons to head West. Thanks to supervolcanoes, desolation reigned beyond Kansas. If an adventurous person made it to the Pacific, sticking a toe into that Ring-of-Fire-heated cauldron was a bad idea. Drastic environmental change killed plenty of humans, even before the beasts arrived and inspired the Mythical Creatures Elimination Squad. The acronym was pronounced with a hard “C,” so unofficial correspondence simply dubbed the organization “M-kes.”
The front of Union Station housed M-kes which employed Eliminators like me to protect mankind from all the beasts that decided they weren’t mythical, anymore. The limestone structure stretched two blocks, not including the parking garage at the west end where I was supposed to haul my kill. The barriers were down and the gate station sat empty. So, I dragged the head through the main entrance set below three, forty-foot-tall arches filled with windows. Huge red banners hung over the arches. They bore the M-Kes coat-of-arms: a black severed dragon’s head with a sword beneath it.
Some thought calling the emblem a coat-of-arms was too medieval, but today I felt like a dragon slayer entering the palace to bring a gift to my king. Well, if my king was a sour-faced blond woman seated at a scratched up wooden desk across the vast hall. My spurs rang as I crossed the earth-tone patterned, marble floor. I didn’t usually go for spurs, but I enjoyed entering the M-kes lobby when I wore them. The manticore head slid behind me. When I stopped, its stench formed a palpable cloud.
The pale Mrs. Kress looked up from her antique desk, her mouth managing a pucker despite the tightness of the bun atop her head. “I’ve told you, Bochs, beast remains go straight to the west parking lot until Dr. Bennett can study them.”
“The gate is shut and no one’s there.”
Kress’ stern brown eyes and stout body had little effect on me. Being a woman myself, I recognized what she loved, and I used it. I removed three brightly wrapped chocolates from my black hoodie and tossed them onto her desk.
Kress’ eyes dilated and her tongue darted out briefly before she controlled herself. “Where did you find this?” She snatched the candy and dropped it in her cleavage.
With cocoa plantations disappearing beneath encroaching jungles, chocolate was precious. Patrolling the Silent Sector one night, I’d come across an abandoned, sealed vault full of chocolate delicacies. What people hid when they thought the end was near amazed me.
I wasn’t about to tell Kress that looted chocolate filled my kitchen cabinets. “Someone gave it to me.”
She stared suspiciously into my light blue face with my alexandrite eyes that probably glowed. If there’s a way to shut off the glow, I hadn’t learned it. I smiled. She flinched at the oversized incisors pushing against my lower lip. I didn’t know why nature gave me predator teeth, for I had no intention of taking a beast down with my mouth, but they provided great intimidation.
Kress focused on the manticore head as tall as my elbow. One eyelid still twitched, winking at her. Most of the blood drained during the trip, but a little dripped onto the polished floor.
Kress shuddered. “Fine, leave it here.” She shoved a yellow piece of paper into my hand. “Johnson and Delaney never showed tonight so this assignment is yours.”
“Did they call in?”
“Did Hicks call in?” Hicks was my no-show partner for the evening.
Kress smiled. “Nope.”
The paper crackled beneath my tightening fingers. As Eliminators for M-kes, we were on a short leash. Being a no-show/no-call brought Enforcers after you in a hurry. Enforcers—the bad asses of M-kes—would just as soon drag an Eliminator back dead as alive. Hicks, Johnson, and Delaney raised the Eliminator disappearances to seven this month. So far, the Enforcers had retrieved only one, very dead.
“Don’t you find this rise in AWOLs disturbing?” As soon as I asked, I wondered why I’d bothered.
“No.” Kress narrowed eyes that actually required the wire-frame glasses she wore. She was a Normal: one of the vast majority of humans who didn’t have the E-gene. The E-gene gave physical superiority to a select few—Evolutionaries they called us, but our natural selection came with a price. The E-gene made us susceptible to the radiation of Atlas which slowly killed us, delayed only by the silica ingots implanted above our hearts. They repelled the radiation just as silica’s presence in Earth’s crust repelled Atlas itself.
Most Normals despised us even though Evolutionaries died while saving them from mythical creatures. The name they chose for themselves made that clear. And all Eliminators and Enforcers were Evolutionaries; M-kes was the only job allowed us.
That all meant Kress didn’t give a damn if we disappeared—not until she needed a monster killer, anyway. “When Provost Allen is concerned, I will be.” She ignored my glare.
The head of the Kansas City chapter of M-kes had been in charge for six weeks, and I’d seen him twice. Provost Allen probably cared less about us than Kress. I turned on my heel, reading my assignment as I walked away.
When I got to the location description, I halted. “The Restricted Zone?”
I looked over my shoulder and Kress shrugged. “People keep going in and not coming out.”
If people were that stupid, they deserved what they got. The Restricted Zone required at least three Eliminators. I looked for the order’s authorization signature. “Doyen Hightower approved this?” Doyen of Defense, Josiah Hightower, didn’t waste manpower on pointless assignments. Josiah was one of the few Normals worth trusting in this city.
“Looks that way, but he’s not here for you to ask. Asking isn’t your privilege, anyway.”
So sweet, Kress. “Do I have a partner?”
She glanced around. “Guess not.”
A growl began deep in my chest and burst from my throat. I knew I sounded like the animal I tried so hard not to be, but I couldn’t help it. I stomped out of headquarters and back into the night. That woman would not get chocolate bribes from me again. Unless I licked it first, then wrapped it back up.
“Hey, Andee!” A sweet, almost childish voice called.
I turned upon hearing my preferred name. My parents were optimistic when they named their freak baby Andromeda. The most positive comment I’d ever received concerning my large eyes, strong nose, and wide mouth was ‘bold.’ I took it as a compliment, but demi-gods didn’t line up to fight sea monsters for me. Meanwhile, I went by Andee, adding the double ‘e’ to make it feminine and cute, thus completing my personification of oxymoronic.
“D.J.” My voice didn’t mirror her enthusiasm. D.J. Chadar was everything I wasn’t: short, cute, nice. Her cherubic face somehow suited her skinny, adolescent-like body that was twenty-six—one year older than me. While my skin looked hypothermic, as if I’d swum in the Arctic Ocean, D.J.’s was indigo and her eyes sparkled like amethysts. Plus, her smile contained zero fangs. None of this caused my disappointment at the sight of her.
Her dark blue hands held the reins of two massive Clydesdales, the transportation of choice when Atlas interfered. A sword as long as my arm was strapped to her waist, the end nearly touching her ankle. Modern chainmail—tiny links of titanium—covered her from neck to knee. Seeing her decked out meant one thing: she was my partner.
Ironically, Evolutionary didn’t always equate to finely tuned survival machine. D.J. avoided death-by-beast because she could hide in small places. While she might see a flea on a horse’s ass two hundred yards away, she couldn’t shoot it off. My parents, though Normals, were athletic superstars. When the Olympics still existed, my mother had twice won sand volleyball gold, and my father had played linebacker in the now mythical National Football League. I was born to be an Amazon, evolution or not.
D.J. was born to be a sharp-eyed kindergarten teacher. She handed me the reins to a horse, her cheerful eyes glowing amidst a cloud of short black hair. “Looks like we get to kill a basilisk together!”
More accurately, I got to keep her alive while simultaneously killing a basilisk. Yay.