The Touch of Iron

Dev ducked under the overhang into what was practically a small cave beneath the hill, trying desperately not to breathe loudly enough to draw the attention of his pursuers. Rust-stained moss covered the old rock around him, and footsteps echoed down from the hilltop maybe twenty feet above.

“I swear Devon was right over here,” Mr. Mackal said, his voice distorted slightly by the rock around Dev. “This was his search sector, and you only showed up a minute or two after he went out.”

“He doesn’t need to search,” Police Chief Carey said. “He probably hid Morgan’s body himself.”

“Are you sure?” Mackal said. “He was such a good student in my shop class, at least until he was expelled. I still have a pe—”

“He’s a thug,” Carey said. “Always has been, always will be. Got that from his father’s side. God knows what he inherited from his mother . . . probably an addiction to something or other. She’s not picky.”

Mackal sighed. “I’d always hoped he’d turn out differently.”

Dev gritted his teeth and tried to ignore them. He’d grown up broad and thick-jawed like his father and uncles, and even his mother had always assumed he would end up violent like them. He’d alternated between resisting and embracing that destiny until he was sixteen, when, after one vicious fight, he’d seen himself for who he really was.

“Well, that hope failed,” Carey said, “as did my attempt to bring him in, from the looks of it. The mayor’s going to be pissed. I wish we’d learned sooner.”

“Learned what?”

“Morgan’s parents heard a hunting horn blown two nights ago around the time she disappeared, and we think that was his signal to her to sneak out of the house and meet him. Hmmm . . . speaking of signals, can you warn the rest of your searchers to keep an eye out for him?”

“Aye, Sir,” Mackal said.

Dev breathed a sigh of relief, but it caught in his chest when he realized what “warn” meant. He fumbled frantically at his belt, so terrified he ignored the coins he accidentally knocked loose from his pocket, pulled out the radio he’d been given when the search had begun about fifteen minutes earlier, and managed to shut it off seconds before Mackal radioed everyone asking them to call in if they saw Dev.

“Thanks,” Carey said when Mackal finished. “Did you hear something down there, though?”

“No, sorry,” Mackal said.

Carey’s footsteps approached the edge of the overhang. “I don’t see anything down there,” he said. “Well, there is a—God damn it!” Carey shouted in pain and scrambled back from the edge.

“What’s wrong, Chief Carey?” Mackal asked.

“That rock . . . I’m sorry, Mac, I have a terrible allergy to iron, and that rock is full of it.”

“Will you be alright? For a moment there, you looked . . . it was like you aged forty years there for a second.”

“To hell with this,” Carey said, his voice suddenly deeper and harsher. “Mac, what you saw was a trick of your eyes.”

“Yes, it was.” Mackal’s voice took on a strange, hollow docility.

“To be on the safe side, though, I’m probably going to have to consume you later,” Carey said.

Dev was glad he was sitting, because he damn near fell over at that statement. Mackal just responded with a dull, “Alright, Sir,” though.

“Good,” Carey said. “I’m going back to the station. He’s probably long gone by now, and I still haven’t gotten around to rounding up Fiona for the mayor. Let’s go.”

“Yes, sir,” Mackal said.

Dev listened to their footsteps recede, too scared to move. He had no idea what happened to Morgan two nights ago, no idea what the hell Carey had done or was going to do to Mackal, and didn’t know anyone named “Fiona.” However, he had met one other person with such a strong allergy to iron.

There would be time for speculation later. Right now, he needed to get as far away from the search area as possible and figure out how to find Morgan. He ran, staying low and keeping to the cover of bushes whenever possible.

Fifteen minutes of that winded him, but by then he could make out a dirt road ahead. He couldn’t risk being seen on it, of course, but he could follow it back toward Morgan’s house and maybe do some searching of his own. If her parents heard a horn, why wasn’t anyone looking in the—

He stopped short and stared at the road. An elderly red Ford drove by, then stopped, reversed for twenty feet, and settled in on the shoulder where it was closest to him. There was only person in the entire county with a car like that, and her appearance here was as improbable as it was wonderful.

Dev dashed the last hundred yards to the car, which he was now sure was Aspasia. The 1995 Escort was roughly the same age as her owner and, like her, had the habit of periodically puffing a bit of smoke into the atmosphere while she idled.

“Ali!” he hissed when he reached Aspasia, huffing and puffing around the word.

“Hop in, dumbass,” Ali said, turning to face him and stubbing out her cigarette.

He didn’t need to be told twice. “How did you know?” he asked, shutting the car door behind him.

She gestured to the police scanner duct-taped under her glove box. With a hobby like hers, that thing occasionally came in handy.

“Damn . . . I’m famous, huh?” Dev said. “So how did you find me?”

“I always know where you are,” she said, using the same tone of voice someone might use to explain a law of nature to a toddler. Her black lace-gloved hands danced across the wheel and gearshift, guiding Aspasia back out into the dirt road. Complementing the gloves were a long-sleeved black tunic, a black patent-leather skirt, black thigh-high stockings, and a silver locket around her neck. The overall effect was so striking that most people never noticed how little skin she actually showed. She never forgot her allergy, but she did her best to make sure everyone else did.

Dev sighed. He was probably never going to get a straight answer to that question. “I owe you one.”

She shook her head, the motion making the locket around her neck sway and sending ripples through her crimson curls. Their color changed every few weeks at her whim, and Dev was one of the few people who remembered their natural shade of light brown. “You don’t owe me a thing,” she said, “and you know it. Now, where do you want me to stash you till they find out what really happened to her?”

“You don’t need to stash me anywhere,” Dev said. “The cops told everyone to search out here, but I heard Chief Carey say something about her being lured out of her house by a hunting horn in the middle of the night. That’s damn strange, and I want to know why they’re not having us search the hunting club instead of the mountains here. He also . . . I swear to God Carey said he was going to consume Mr. Mackal, and Mr. Mackal didn’t even seem to react.”

“He what?” Ali asked.

“Yeah, that was pretty much my reaction, too,” Dev said, absently running his right hand over his head and enjoying the wind through his partially regrown buzzcut.

“I knew he was a fascist, but I hadn’t pegged him as a cannibal,” Ali said. “Or a hypnotist, for that matter. I think you’re right about this being worth checking out.” She flicked the turn signal to turn onto the state road that took them toward the hunting club and, if you kept driving for half an hour, the highway to Virginia. Aspasia signaled her assent by turning on the appropriate signal for once. “You think Carey’s actually behind it?”

“No idea,” Dev said, “but I’ll clear my name faster if I can find out who is.” A car appeared around a bend in front of them, and he ducked out of sight until it passed. “You know, you really shouldn’t be seen with me now. Just drop me off and get moving. You never even liked her, anyway.”

“Correct, but you suck at this. I’m going with you.”

“I haven’t even gotten started properly yet.”

She sighed. “You went out on a search party and nearly ended up in jail. That’s pretty much the definition of sucking.”

“That wasn’t my fault!”

“What’s that?” She put her right hand up to her ear, then returned it to the stick shift. “I can’t hear you over the sound of your massive sucking.”

“Fine,” Dev said. He never won these conversations. Something was bugging him about her movements, though. . . .

“Hey, Ali,” Dev said. “Is there steel in that locket? I just noticed that you wince a little whenever it swings into your skin.”

“Nah, it’s silver, but it’s a little thinner than the old brass one,” Ali said, shifting into second while she spoke. “I feel the iron inside more.” A nudge with her gloved hand and a slight jerk from the transmission and they were into third.

“You keep iron that close to your skin?” The touch of steel and other iron alloys always pained her, but nothing triggered her allergy like pure iron.

“It’s an old keepsake,” Ali said, keeping her eyes straight ahead on the road.

“Nothing can be that important,” Dev said. “Why do you wear it if it hurts you?”

“You’ve got that backwards,” Ali said. “It’s only important because it hurts . . . surely you’ve noticed that about life. It can’t possibly be important if you don’t let it hurt you.”

“Well, yes, but not generally in the physical sense.”

“Generally not,” Ali said, the corners of her lips curling into a smile. “I’m getting off easy.”

“Heh, I never thought about it like that,” Dev said.

Ali nodded, then flicked the turn signal to leave the main road and turn onto a small county road. This time, though, Aspasia signaled that she wanted to go in the direction of the highway.

Dev shook his head. “Aspasia wants to get out of here. She’s probably right, at least as far as you’re concerned.”

“She’s just going to have to suck it up,” Ali said, “because we’re going hunting.”

They spent the rest of the short drive to the hunting club’s main entrance in silence, for once not even punctuated by any snide remarks from Aspasia (or unpleasant clanking sounds, which amounted to the same thing from her). Ali pulled them up on the shoulder in front of the short dirt and gravel drive up to the Carter-era dirty beige trailer that served as the office for the small private preserve. “Something bugging you, Dev?”

He nodded. “I always thought hunting horns were used for horseback hunting, but it’s all wooded hillsides in there. You can’t ride anywhere.”

“True enough. Whatever it was, though, it was probably coming from here. Where else would someone be blowing a hunting horn?”

“Is that what they’re calling it in high school now?”

Ali smacked him on the arm and got out of the car. “Come on. I’d like to get this done before dark.”

“OK,” Dev said, grabbing a flashlight from the glovebox.

“Hey,” she said, getting out of the car, “why do they think she left the house at night to meet with you?”

“Well, she had been known to do that,” Dev said, blushing.

“I’m starting to see why you’re a suspect,” Ali said. “I take it you two are completely over, though?”

“Definitely. We haven’t even spoken since she told me I was a lazy waste of space and never wanted to see me again.”

Ali’s eyes flashed. “You’re not exactly making me want to find her, you know.”

Dev opened his mouth to reply, but stopped and knelt to look at the ground, instead. “Ali? When did it last rain?”

“About two days ago. Why?”

He ran his fingers over the tire tracks. Bits of dirt crumbled off under his fingers, and his axe head pendant slipped out of his shirt when he leaned over. “These tire tracks are dry, but they look like they were made when this dirt was mud,” Dev said, stuffing the wrought iron axe head pendant back into his shirt. A few pendants or keychains at the bottom of his friends’ drawers were the only tangible remnants of his truncated attempt at crafting in Mr. Mackal’s class.

She examined the ground. “Ooooh . . . smart. Those must have been made right around when she disappeared. I wish they’d taught us stuff like that in high school.”

“They didn’t teach us that at my school,” Dev said. “I picked it up on my own, while I was teaching myself to hunt deer.” His parents were rarely around for various reasons, and the local game wardens were more interested in the paychecks than the work itself. Deer hunting was a cheap and easy way to add a little food to the table. Learning to butcher them had been the hardest part, but (with plenty of help and terrible jokes from Ali) he’d figured it out eventually.

“Nice!”

Dev sighed and kept walking toward the trailer.

Ali followed him. “You think I’m patronizing you, don’t you?”

“Aren’t you?”

“No! I mean it!”

“That doesn’t make it less patronizing.”

“I don’t know what else to do,” Ali said, her normally bright brown eyes downcast and dark. “I can’t fix it.”

“You don’t have to fix it,” Dev said. As raw as this nerve was in him, he sometimes forgot it was worse for her.

“It was my fault!”

“It was my choice,” Dev said.

“You chose wrong.”

Dev shook his head and tried the trailer door. Locked, of course. “Ali, can you get this?”

She lifted up her skirt and pulled out a titanium pick set hidden in the inside lining. Dev looked away, but wasn’t quite fast enough to avoid being flashed.

“You’re too polite,” she said, stepping past him to take a look at the door. She loved exploring abandoned factories and mines, and a set of lockpicks Dev had gotten her as a gag gift were now her favorite toys. He was always worried the police were going to catch her with them, so their hiding place underneath her patent leather skirt was a compromise for concealability on her part.

“You’re the only person who’s ever said that to me,” Dev said, taking up a position between her and the street to block any possible clear view of her work.

“Does that mean you treat me differently or that I have low standards?” Ali asked.

“No comment.”

“Clever boy.” She switched picks. “Tough one, this. I’m glad there’s no deadbolt.” She fiddled it some more and was rewarded with a loud click. “There we go!”

“You’re getting faster,” Dev said.

“Thanks,” Ali said, then gestured to the dark doorway. “After you.”

Dev took a deep breath, flicked on the flashlight, and walked in, with Ali following at a safe distance. The door let in some light, and Dev’s flashlight illuminated the remainder of the first room in the trailer. They didn’t need to see more.

A pool of blood maybe three inches in diameter lay congealed on the floor. The large desk on the opposite wall looked to have been cleared hastily, and some more blood was on top of it. Binders and papers were strewn around the floor, giving the impression of a thrashing struggle.

Dev and Ali took in the room for a solid minute, neither saying a word. Then they looked at each other.

“Holy shit,” Dev said.

Ali nodded. A second later, they heard the sound of hoofbeats coming up the drive.

“What the—” Dev began, but shut up when Ali raised her hand to silence him. She was nearer the door, so she poked her head around the frame to see who was outside, keeping low where she would be less noticeable.

She took only the briefest glance before launching herself back from the doorway. She was normally pale, but what little color she did have was now gone. “Not a horse. Not a horse. Not a horse,” she said, grabbing Dev’s hand and hauling him through the crime scene. “Back door!”

“What did you see?” Dev asked, allowing her to lead him into the back of the trailer. Somehow, the ordinariness of the second room made the situation worse. It was a simple sleeping area, with two cots and a small bookshelf, all with a tiny window to the outside. There was no door.

“Oh God,” Ali said. “We’re going to die.”

Dev pulled out his pocket knife and flicked open the blade. It was only two inches long and perfectly legal, but it could still ruin someone’s day. “What’s out there, Ali?””

Before she could compose herself enough to answer, Mayor Vance stepped into the trailer. He was wearing a suit and tie, but sweat rolled down the short man’s jowls like he’d just been running a race.

“What the hell are you?” she screamed at him.

“The same as you,” he said. “Kneel, Devon, before your betters.”

Devon dropped to his knees without a word, his eyes blank and docile.

Ali backed up against the bookshelf. “What have you done to him?”

“Gotten him out of our way,” Vance said. “We have more important things to discuss. I appreciate him for leading you somewhere isolated that I happened to be monitoring, though. That will make the next step easier.”

“So you can kill me like you did Morgan?” Ali asked.

“Morgan? We’re saving her for you,” Vance said, drawing a long, thin silver knife. “I meant so I could strip your false past away, Fiona. Have you ever wondered why you don’t seem to make friends? We did that, my wife and I, to make removing you from this insect society easier when the time came.”

“You . . .” Ali trailed off and sat down hard on the bed. Her whole life was swimming in her head.

Vance pricked his skin with the knife blade and said something in a language Ali had never heard before. “There we go,” Vance said when he was done. “The peasant nursemaid you call ‘mother’ will have no memory of you, and neither will anyone else. Now, you must feel the power awakening within you, and the craving. Bury this in that human’s heart and feast on his soul.”

True to Vance’s words, hunger roared to life in her stomach, and Ali fell back against the wall of the trailer, clutching her midsection. The locket at her throat throbbed, a deeper pain she realized had always been present but that she’d never been sensitive enough to feel. All she had to do was take it off. . . .

“No!” she screamed, staggering to her feet. “I won’t hurt him.”

“Your attachment to these things does you no credit,” Vance said. “This one’s a simple thug who doesn’t even remember your name by now.”

“What are you talking about?” Ali asked, staring at Devon. He made no response.

“Little thug!” Vance said. “Tell this child that you’ve never seen her before.”

Devon fell out of his trance, ending up on all fours on the dirty trailer floor. A girl stood above him, all in black and quavering in terror of the knife-wielding mayor. “What the hell is going on?” he asked everyone. His axe pendant was hot to the touch, and a part of his mind was yelling at the rest of it to wake up. Dreamlike, a memory floated into his head.

He was sixteen again, sneaking late into school past a few older kids out for a smoke and clustered around a trash can. They taunted him, and he lashed out. First one of the boys went down, and then one of the girls and the other boy. The fourth girl fled, screaming for help. His fists ran red with blood, theirs and his own.

“Dev, say something!” the girl in black said, terror in her bright brown eyes.

“Answer me, thug!” the mayor shouted.

The insult stung of truth. “I . . . I don’t know,” Dev said.

“He’s forgotten you,” the mayor said. “Take this knife and take your place with your true parents.”

“I’d rather die,” the girl said.

“You’re a tenacious one, just like your real mother,” the mayor said. His tone changed. “Come, then, Fiona, and do as I tell you.”

She stiffened and began to walk toward the mayor. Something in Dev’s brain was positively screaming now, screaming a name he’d never heard before and insisting over and over again. . . .

“Her name is Ali,” Dev whispered.

The Mayor and the girl both turned to him. “What did you say, thug?” Vance asked.

“I said her name is Alana,” Dev said, rising to his feet. “And I’m no thug.” The whole memory was reconstituting itself in his mind now: a girl begging for help while four juniors stuffed her in a steel trash can, a girl collapsed in his arms, barely breathing and twitching, crying about the metal ripping away her soul, school administrators ignoring her claims that he’d saved her life and expelling him.

Ali blinked. “Dev?”

He stepped between her and Vance and raised his knife. “I don’t know what you are, Mayor, but I bet you bleed.”

Vance stepped back. “I don’t know why that didn’t work, but it doesn’t matter. I’ll just have to do this the hard way.” He backed out of the trailer, his steps morphing into hoofbeats on the gravel once he was out of their sight.

After the sound faded away, Dev folded up his knife and turned to Ali. “Are you alright?”

She responded by launching herself at him and hugging him tightly.

He hugged her, too. “I nearly lost you, Ali, even . . . even the memory of you.” He hugged her tighter.

“What is he?” Ali asked, voice muffled against his chest. “What am I?”

“I have no idea what he is,” Dev said. “But you’re still Ali.”

“Dev . . .” she pushed away from him. “Dev, he was right. I’m starving.”

“It’s been awhile since either of us ate. Let’s get you—”

“Not that kind of hunger. I . . . that knife . . . I knew what to do with it. Instinctively. It’s so simple. You shove it into a person and drink up their life force while it flows out of their body. God help me, Dev . . . it sounds delicious.”

“He’s messing with your head,” Dev said. “That’s not really you.”

“I hope so.” She put a gloved hand up to his face, running the lace over his stubble. “Promise me you won’t let me turn into that, please. Kill me first.”

Dev took her hand in his. “Not a chance.”

“What if I’m a monster?”

“You could have three heads and tentacles, and you still wouldn’t be a monster. Come on, let’s get out of here before he gets back.”

“Yeah,” she shuddered. “After what happened to you, I need to go see my mother and make sure she’s alright.”

“Are you sure that’s a good idea? What if the mayor goes there?”

“True. OK, give her a call while I drive.”

They ran out of the trailer, Dev stopping just long enough to snap a picture of the crime scene on his phone. He sent the photo to all of his friends with the words “the mayor killed Morgan,” then hopped into Aspasia and called Ali’s mother, Connie.

“She’s not answering,” he said after a moment.

“She only answers for people she knows, but she’s always answered for you,” Ali said, flicking the blinker to “right.” Aspasia disagreed and kept it at “left.”

“What if the police are already there?”

“Then we really have to go,” Ali said, turning right anyway. “You want me to let you out first?”

Dev raised his eyebrows at her.

“There’s no point in you going, too.”

He raised them higher.

“You’re right,” she said, shifting up to fourth for a flat stretch, “this is a bad idea. I’ll pull over and let you off here.”

“You’re terrified,” Dev said.

“Yes, but I have to do this. You can get out right here.”

“Nah. I’m just getting comfortable.” He leaned the seat back about twenty degrees and stretched.

“You idiot!” She slammed the shifter back into third for the last hill between them and her house. “How do you think I’m going to feel if something happens to you?”

“About like I’d feel if something happened to you, and I wasn’t there,” Dev said.

She drove on in silence for a moment. “The mayor was wrong,” she eventually said, flicking the turn signal to pull into her driveway. “He said I didn’t have any friends.”

“The mayor’s an asshole,” Dev said. “Now, let’s run in there, warn your mother, grab whatever you need, and then we all run like hell.”

“In and out,” Ali said. “Got it.”

They jumped out of the car as soon as it came to a halt and dashed up to the door of the old A-frame house. It was uncharacteristically locked, and Ali knocked loudly.

Connie opened the door and raised her eyebrows. “Can I help you?” she asked.

“Mom?” Ali said. “Why are you—”

“That’s not funny,” Connie said, her jaw muscles tightening.

“What are you talking about?” Ali asked.

“My child died a newborn, and I was never able to have another.”

“No,” Ali said, “this isn’t possible.”

Dev raised his hand. “Miss Leary? Don’t you have a room full of girl’s things?”

“Of course, Devon,” Connie said. “That’s from the exchange student I was hosting. She got sick and had to fly home yesterday, though, so the mayor’s going to collect everything and have them shipped to her.”

“Mom, please, try to remember me,” Ali said.

“Stop calling me ‘Mom’!” Connie said. She stalked away, returning after a moment with a heavy fireplace poker. “This prank is disgusting, and I want you off of my property!”

Ali recoiled. “Even when I broke your grandmother’s washbasin, you never threatened me with iron.”

“What?” Connie’s jaw dropped. “I broke that, years ago. How did you even know—”

Dev spun around at the sound of a car pulling into the driveway. It was a police cruiser, followed by another. “Ali, run!” he shouted.

He grabbed her hand and dashed off the porch, but two policemen with guns jumped out of the first cruiser and fired warning shots over their heads.

Ali looked up at Dev and they both slowed down. “I’m sorry,” she said. “This was a stupid—”

“The girl isn’t a threat,” Chief Carey said, getting out of the first cruiser. His voice changed slightly. “Take her to the mayor’s house so we can question her, and zap her if she tries to run away. Use plastic ties on both of them.”

The policemen nodded and wordlessly marched toward Ali. Carey held his Glock on Dev the whole time, grinning.

“No!” Ali said. “I’m a threat, too! Take me wherever you’re taking him.”

“It doesn’t work like that,” Carey said while the officers put plastic ties around her hands and took her purse. They tied Dev’s hands next, then patted him down and took his wallet, keys, and knife.

Connie stepped onto the porch. “Could someone tell me what the hell is going on?”

“No,” Carey said, not even looking at her. “Go back inside.”

Without another word, Connie disappeared back into her house.

“Take her to the mayor’s house,” Carey said. The officers didn’t respond or even acknowledge the order. Glassy-eyed, they dragged Ali to their car, ignoring the torrent of imprecations she was screaming at them. Once she was secure in the back, they drove off, her vitriol still audible through the closed car windows until they were out of the driveway.

“I’m guessing you’re not taking me to jail,” Dev said to Carey.

“Brilliant deduction,” Carey said, opening the rear door on his cruiser. “Get in.”

“I’d rather not,” Dev said.

“Sit down in my car.” Carey’s voice slipped past Devon’s brain and went straight to his legs, and Dev took a step toward the car. Then another. He stopped himself before the third, but Carey jammed his gun into the small of Dev’s back and repeated the order.

The feel of cold polymer against his back was even more convincing than the order, and Dev slid into the back seat without another word. Carey slammed the door after him and got into the driver’s seat. “I’m not going to kill you and dump your body up in the mountains, though, if that’s what you’re wondering.”

“Why do I have the feeling that’s preferable to what’s actually going to happen to me?”

Carey chuckled and turned them back onto the main road. “You are a clever one, aren’t you? No, I’m taking you to the hunting club.”

****

The policemen drove up to the mayor’s house, a big Georgian brick structure from the boom days of the local coal fields, but took no action once they arrived. Ali continued screaming at them for another few minutes, but got no response at all and eventually gave up. They were so completely unresponsive that she wasn’t sure she’d get a reaction if she shot them in the gut.

After ten minutes, the car started to get stuffy, and after twenty it was extremely uncomfortable. It still wasn’t bad enough that she was happy to see Carey when he pulled up after twenty-five, though.

“Oh, right,” he said, opening the driver’s door and hitting a button, “I never told them to take you into the house. It’s just as well, though.” He opened one of the rear doors and hauled Ali out by her arm. “I’ll take you to our parents myself.”

“Our parents?” Ali asked. “What the hell is wrong with you? And what did you do with Dev?”

“None of your concern,” Carey said. “At least, it shouldn’t be.” He told the policemen to go fetch Ali’s car, then led Ali into the house.

No one was in the foyer when Carey led her in, but the mayor and his wife came immediately once he called them. “We were just preparing dinner,” the Mayor said. “Nellie’s done an exquisite job with the presentation, I think you’ll agree.”

“I can’t wait,” Carey said. “I’m absolutely starving.” He tossed Ali’s purse next to Nellie’s on a small table in the foyer.

Nellie Vance patted Ali on the head. “I’m sure you are, too, you poor dear. Human food will keep you alive, but it’s not very nourishing. Come now, you’ll feel better once you eat properly.”

“I’ll bet you’re right,” Carey said, pulling out a small ceramic knife and cutting the tie that bound Ali’s hands.

“But what about . . .” Ali knew there was something terribly wrong, but it kept slipping away each time she tried to wrap words around it.

“There’s nothing to worry about, dear,” Nellie said, putting an arm around Ali’s shoulders. “You’re home now.”

Ali looked around her. “I’ve never been here before. It’s beautiful, but how can it be home? I have another home . . . or I think I do . . . I did. . . .”

“That was just your nursemaid’s house,” the Mayor said. “We’re not really much for raising children ourselves, so we just have others do it for us. It’s messy work, and they don’t mind.” He chuckled after the word “mind,” as if it were some sort of private joke.

Nellie led them all into the dining room and sat Ali at the head of the table. “A feast for our daughter!” she said. “Your first real meal!”

“Thank you,” Ali said, trying to take all of it in. The table was easily eight feet long, and almost every inch of it was covered with plates of delicious-looking food. There were appetizers, finger foods, plates of beef and ham, vegetable platters, and plates full of pastry cylinders enfolding things she’d simply never thought of wrapping pastry around before.

They all tucked in with gusto. The food tasted even better than it looked, and after fifteen minutes Ali’s hunger was finally dying away. Even though she’d been stuffing her face, she wasn’t feeling at all full, and gleefully helped herself to another plate of baked ham and homemade mac and cheese.

Her brain processed that thought just as her fork touched the plate for the first bite, and she froze. The meal was nourishing, more so than any she’d ever had, but she didn’t feel even a little full. And where was Dev?

Ali wrapped her hand around her locket out of reflex more than anything, but this time the dull ache was a full-on burning sensation. She pulled her hand away, but the shock to her system had done its job. She could see.

Carey looked reasonably human-like, but more like an old man than the middle-aged policeman she’d seen around town since she was a child. The mayor and his wife terrified her, though. They were wizened little things, maybe four feet tall each. Their skin hung in fleshy folds around their small frames and strands of greasy white hair crowned their heads. Eyes far too large for their heads gazed hungrily at the table, and spindly fingered hands pawed at the plates for more food.

Except there were no plates. A silver haze covered the table, gradually thinning as the diners shoved bits of it into their mouths. The plate in front of Ali was haze, not ham.

Ali touched the locket again, ignoring the pain, and for a moment she saw through the haze. Morgan lay there, still and cold, with a silver dagger embedded hilt-deep in her heart. Haze flowed from the hilt into the air around it, blanketing the table.

“Fucking hell!” Ali screamed, pushing her chair back and launching herself out of it. “You killed her!”

Nellie turned those unsettling eyes on her. “Of course, and with your help, too. Wasn’t she delicious?”

Carey and Vance rose from the table. “Now, Dear,” Vance said, “sit back down and don’t insult your mother’s dinner.”

Ali’s legs wanted to go back to the table, but she told them to be still and glared at the Mayor. “Not this time, you bastard.”

“That’s no good,” Nellie said, shaking her head. “Poor dear still thinks she’s human.”

“I think something is tying her to that life,” Carey said, stalking toward Ali and backing her into a corner. She threw a punch at him, but he caught it easily and twisted her arm behind her.

“Is it her nursemaid?” Nellie asked.

“Not a chance,” Vance said. “We’ve been planning that erasure for two decades and building up the power for it the whole time. The High King himself couldn’t restore that tie. It has to be someone who is as strongly bound to her as she is to him. . . .” Vance trailed off and looked at Carey.

Carey smiled. “Of course! Mother, I’ll lock Fiona in the cell, and then Father and I will go and sever that tie.”

“Excellent idea,” Vance said, raising his voice to be heard over Ali’s screams of rage while Carey dragged her away. “Nellie, eat your fill here and save the rest for Fiona when she comes around. Carey and I will continue our dinner separately.”

“Very well,” she said. “I was hoping we could dine as a family, but I suppose we’ll have to wait for another vagrant to come through.”

The basement into which Carey hauled Ali was mostly full of ancient furniture, but there was an empty closet near the stairs. “We keep this for others of our kind who might come through and dispute our control of this town,” Carey explained while he threw her inside. “Their lords are usually willing to ransom them back.”

It wasn’t till he slammed the door shut that Ali realized the nature of the cell. Antique iron nails studded the walls, the inside of the door, and ceiling, each one no more than two inches from the next. Below her was a concrete floor that, from the aching feeling in her feet, must have had rebar embedded within. A single bare lightbulb swung above on a cord, and a single discarded iron nail gathered dust near the door’s hinges.

She sat down heavily on the floor and wrapped her arms around her knees. She was a monster, trapped by even greater monsters. She’d consumed a girl’s life and had thought it delicious the whole time. If Dev wouldn’t kill her now . . .

Dev! She shot to her feet. “I can go to hell later,” she said, her words thin and hollow in the empty cell.

On closer examination, the closet’s lock was an antique wrought-iron one, probably at least eighty years old. It was simple, but the nearly pure iron was Kryptonite to creatures like them . . . and like her. They could never manipulate it with whatever power they had and could barely even touch it.

Ali had other options, though. She flipped up her skirt and pulled out the titanium lock pick set, then knelt down in front of the lock and inserted the tension wrench and the largest pick she had. The mechanism was indeed simple, but the sheer proximity of the iron made concentration difficult. After a few minutes, her vision was swimming and she had to sit back for a moment to let her head clear. Time was of the essence, but the lock felt like it was sucking her life away while she worked.

“It probably is,” Ali said to herself, then went back to work on the lock. This life didn’t feel like hers anymore, anyway.

Ali’s vision was so blurry by the time she felt the mechanism turn that she was worried she would pass out, so she sat back down for a moment before venturing out. She didn’t know what she would find out there and didn’t want to be caught wobbly.

All that was out there, though, was furniture and more furniture. She cast about for anything iron to use for a weapon, but of course they kept none around. She contented herself with grabbing a broken-off chair leg about two feet long and pushing the fallen nail into it. It wasn’t much, and even with her gloves on it hurt like hell to push in the nail, but it was better than nothing.

****

Dev had to admit that having both arms cuffed to different corners of a bed made escape pretty much impossible. What he didn’t have to admit was defeat, which is why he’d managed to struggle to his feet, haul the bed upright like some horrible backpack, and try to bash the door down with the bed.

He’d only put a couple of holes in it before he heard the clatter of hooves on the stones outside, so he stood to one side of the door and decided to try Plan C.

“Devon,” Vance said, opening the door, “it’s time—bloody hargh.”

Dev coiled his body for another strike and swung the bed into the mayor again, staggering him.

“The only thing it’s time for is bed!” Dev said, winding up for another awkward swing. He might die here, but damned if he hadn’t gotten at least one good line and one good shot in before they killed him.

“Freeze!” Carey said, but Devon ignored the command and smashed Vance in the head again with the bed.

“Damn it!” Carey said, drawing a Glock. “I said freeze!”

“Fuck you,” Dev said, but stopped attacking.

Vance huffed for a moment, then stood upright. “He ignored your command?”

“I’m not sure how, but yes,” Carey said.

“I know what you are now,” Dev said. “You can take your commands and—”

“That’s enough,” Carey said, gesturing with the Glock. “Father, that makes this hunt riskier than normal. Are you sure you want to do this?”

“It’s been too long since I found a human worth the hunt,” Vance said.

“Then let’s . . .” Carey trailed off. “Why are there cars driving up outside?”

“Oh, shit,” Dev said. If that was who he thought it was, they had the worst timing in the world.

“It was taken here,” someone shouted outside. “His phone geotagged the photo.”

“Get help!” Dev shouted. “Carey’s got a gun!”

“Bloody hell!” Vance said. “Come on, Pat!”

They dashed out the door screaming orders left and right. Dev took the opportunity to try to maneuver the bed out the door, but the legs made it unwieldy and he didn’t think he’d be able to get far hauling a bed in any case. He desperately hoped some of his friends were able to escape with their memories unaltered.

****

Ali crept up the stairs, holding the chair leg in front of her in some vain hope that it would shield her from any sort of detection spell that might be on the house. She paused each time a step creaked beneath her feet, but nobody came to check.

When she got closer to the top, she heard water running in a sink and Nellie talking loudly, but couldn’t make out any words. At the top of the stairs, Ali pushed the cellar door open a few inches and poked her head out to look around. Morgan’s corpse was still on the dining room table where she’d last seen it, surrounded by plastic air-tight containers full of the grey mist on which they’d all been dining earlier.

Ali pulled her head back and leaned against the railing, not sure whether to laugh or vomit. A girl’s life had been drained into those containers, but the whole thing looked so perfectly domestic that it could have been a spread in Good Cannibaling Magazine. She took a deep breath, hefted the chair leg, and stepped back out into the dining room.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered to the corpse while creeping past it. “I’ll be dead by the dawn, I promise you, and I’ll kill them all if I can.” Only blood could atone for what she’d done, and nothing at all could atone for what she was.

Nellie’s voice was clearer now, and terrifying. “Have you gotten rid of all of those teenagers yet, dear?” A pause. “Oh, good, I’m glad. Adjusting them all must have been ever so draining.” Another pause. “He sent them a photo? How awful. You made them delete it, right?” A long pause. “They forwarded it? Oh dear! I’ll make sure to keep Fiona hidden, then, and I’ll go hide our dinner in just a moment.” Another pause. “All right, dear, happy hunting.” There was a clatter when she hung up the phone, an old landline model.

A red haze came over Ali’s vision and she charged, heedless of noise or danger. Nellie barely had time to turn around before the chair leg caught her in the head, the nail ripping a long gash in her wizened scalp. Ali’s next shot tore the thing’s cheek open, and she aimed to take its head off with the third.

Nellie caught it mid-strike.

“Iron?” she seethed, glaring at the nail. “You wield iron?” She wrenched the chair leg out of Ali’s hands and bashed her in the side of the head with it, sending her staggering. “Wicked, wicked child!”

Nellie raised the chair leg to strike again, then lowered it and straightened herself up. “Look at me, attacking you like a common human.” Her tone of voice changed. “Now bend over and let your mother punish you.”

“Fuck you,” Ali said, and threw a punch at her head. Each time she disobeyed one of those commands, disobeying the next one became easier.

“Language, Dear,” Nellie said, ducking faster than humanly possible. She smacked Ali in the side of the head with the chair leg again. “Now obey your mother and bend over!”

Ali staggered for a moment, trying to buy herself some time to think. Nellie was too fast to beat in a straight fight, and she’d lost the only iron she . . .

“Yes, mother,” Ali said, mimicking the monotone of the police she’d seen controlled earlier, and turned around and bent over. While she did so, she brought her hands up to her locket, the motion hidden by her body.

“Much better, Dear,” Nellie said. “Now, before I give you a proper spanking, tell your mother how you got out of the cell. Can’t have you escaping again later, now can we?”

“I used my titanium lock picks, Mother,” Ali said.

“Lock picks of titanium? My, you’re just like your brother. Now hand them over, dear.”

“Yes, mother.” Ali opened her locket, letting the axe head pendant drop into her gloved hand. Ignoring the explosion of pain, she turned around and clapped her palm down on Nellie’s outstretched hand and held tight.

“What . . .” Nellie screamed when she realized what was in her hand. She tried to pull away, but the touch of the iron weakened her and she couldn’t break Ali’s grip.

“Die. You. Fucking. Bitch,” Ali said, punctuating each word with a punch to Nellie’s face with her left hand. The relentless barrage forced Nellie to her knees, but Ali’s right hand was growing weak with agony and she knew she couldn’t hold Nellie forever. The sight of the woman screaming gave her an idea, though, and instead of another punch, Ali wrapped her left hand around Nellie’s throat and pushed her to the ground.

“Let . . . ogh . . . me,” Nellie struggled to get the words out, then reverted to screaming when Ali released her hand and clapped the iron against her neck.

Ali smiled through her own pain and tightened her grip with her left hand. Just as Ali anticipated, the screams quickly turned to coughs, at which point Ali took the pendant and shoved it into Nellie’s open mouth.

Nellie’s eyes widened and then rolled back in her head. She thrashed on the ground beneath Ali, then spasmed and grew still. Ali held on, though, squeezing the thing’s throat as tightly as she could until she was absolutely sure it was dead, whatever it was.

Assurance came more quickly than she expected. Nellie’s body started glowing with silver light, then vanished in a haze of mist. In under a minute, all that was left on the floor beneath her was the axe head pendant, slightly rustier than Ali remembered.

Ali looked at the pendant for a moment, then picked it up in her left hand and put it back into the locket. Even through the gloves, it burned, bringing tears to Ali’s eyes. She wasn’t crying over killing that thing, certainly; that murderous creature that had tricked her into eating a former classmate, happily discussed killing Dev, and . . . called her “daughter.”

She snapped the locket shut, rose to her feet, and shook her right hand to bring some feeling back to it. She had to get to Dev before it was too late, but to do that she needed a car and something to fight Vance and Carey. A glance around her confirmed nothing of iron in the house, which was more or less what she’d expected.

The dull pain from the locket and the ache in her right hand weren’t helping matters, but she did her best to clear her head and think for a moment. She needed iron, but where could she find some at this time of night? Ideally, it would be en route to the hunting club. . . .

Ali dashed to the foyer, pausing only to grab her purse before leaving the house forever. True to Carey’s orders, Aspasia was parked in the driveway, looking wonderful in her familiar shabbiness next to the mayor’s two Cadillacs.

“All right, Aspasia,” Ali said, hopping in and cranking the engine. “We’re taking one last trip home.”

****

“Damn it, Devon,” Carey said, “where the hell did you think you were going with a bed on your back through a forest?” He was dragging Dev backwards up the hill toward the trailer with surprising strength.

“Somewhere that wasn’t full of homicidal lunatics!” Dev said, doing his best to pull against Carey. It wasn’t working.

Carey sighed. “Don’t waste your strength, kid. Father hates boring hunts.”

They arrived at the trailer just when Vance came out of the door. “I just got off the phone with Nellie,” he said. “I wanted to warn her that some of those vermin forwarded a photo that Devon took to others. We’ll have a lot to clean up in the morning.”

“Good,” Devon said. “I hope they send it to the FBI!”

Carey grabbed a leg of the bed and wrenched it back and forth, rattling Dev’s head. “Shut up,” he said, then turned back to Vance. “Father, we’re going to need all of our strength tomorrow to contain the fallout from this, especially after excising my sister from her former life. Why don’t you just consume the boy now?”

“You worry too much,” the Mayor said. “We’d been building up the excision for two decades, so it really wasn’t much work. Besides, it’s been fifty years since I’ve hunted anyone immune to my commands, and I hate to pass that up.”

“I’m not your goddamn toy!” Dev shouted.

“Yes, you are,” Carey said. “Father, at least mark him first. We can’t afford to be at this for too long.”

“You have a point,” Vance said. He rolled up his sleeves, then grabbed Dev’s arm. “I’ll just . . . what the hell? Pat, I can’t place my mark on his mind. Someone else beat me to it.”

“I’ll be damned,” Carey said. “Fiona. But how?”

“I have no idea. It’s not hard to do even if you’re untrained, but keeping it up all the time would require tremendous mental effort. There’s our answer for what kept her from coming back to us, I suppose.”

Dev smiled. “I never realized it before, but you’re all pathetic.”

Vance raised his eyebrows. “That’s rich, coming from a human.”

“You think you have a family,” Dev said, “but you wouldn’t know what it meant to be loved if it hit you in the face. You’re a bunch of voracious cowards, skulking around the perimeter of human civilization and picking off stragglers.”

“Civilization? You call this crap civilization?” Vance asked.

“My thoughts exactly,” Carey said. “Also, what would you know of family, Devon? Your father and uncles spend more time in prison than out, and your mother loves meth far more than she ever loved you.”

“I know Ali,” Dev said. That shocked them into silence, a small victory in the otherwise abysmal night.

“You know nothing,” Vance said after a moment. “To hell with the marking. I’ll do this the old-fashioned way.”

“I think I’ll enjoy watching that,” Carey said. He pulled out his ceramic knife and passed it to his father, then drew his Glock. “OK, Devon, the hunt is a very old tradition among our people, and there are certain rules we are going to follow.”

“Rules?” Dev asked. “Since when do sadistic sociopaths follow rules?”

“Since before the precursor to the precursor to the precursor of your pathetic ‘civilization’ began carving the swirls you call ‘Oggham’ into the stones of Britain,” Vance said. “The first rule is that the game must have stakes. If you survive the night, we will let you go free.”

“Has that ever happened?” Dev asked, curious in spite of himself.

“Once, three centuries ago. I learned from that sodden evening, I assure you, and you will not be so lucky. Now, the second rule is that none may leave the field once the hunt commences. This hunting club covers nearly two hundred acres, so we have plenty of space. We can tell if anyone enters or leaves the property, though, and if you leave we will immediately find you and kill you.”

“The third rule,” Vance continued, “is that the hunt must come to its natural end. If you try to kill yourself to spoil my hunt, I promise you a death more painful than anything a human torturer has ever devised.” Vance reached up and cut the ties binding Dev to the bed, then effortlessly tossed the bed onto the driveway.

“I won’t agree to anything,” Dev said, rubbing his wrists.

“You don’t have to,” Carey said, his Glock’s point of aim never wavering from Dev’s chest. “We’re telling you. You can do whatever you want. Try to kill us, try to flee, it’s your choice as prey. Those are the rules we’ll follow, though, and we never, ever waver.”

Vance looked up at the sky. “The moon’s nearly full . . . that makes it a little easier for you, human. When the moon passes the midpoint of the sky, Pat will blow his horn and the hunt will commence. That gives you about half an hour. Run now, human. Run until I find you.”

“Or don’t,” Carey said, gesturing with the Glock. “Same thing, really.”

Dev ran.

****

The key was under the same rock it had always been, and Ali cursed each click of a tumbler as it slid into the lock in the door. The house . . . her house . . . was silent and still when she entered, though. She crept over the linoleum in the entryway and into the kitchen just beyond, making her way by the moonlight streaming in through the windows near the peak of the house. The moon was near its peak for the night, and its high-angle light illuminated the kitchen while leaving the living room area on the other side of the house in deep shadow. The fireplace was in that shadow, but Ali would cross that darkness when she came to it. She had an errand in the light first.

Her “mother’s” . . . no, this woman was her mother, no quotation marks or question about it, and her notepad was still on the fridge where Ali had seen it that morning, the beginnings of a grocery list on it. Ali took up the pen and, just below the word “eggs,” wrote a short farewell and apology. There was no end to what she could have said, but she needed to find Dev before it was too late.

Once she finished her note, she tiptoed toward the living area, avoiding all of the spots on the floor that she knew were creaky. She dodged a chair hidden in the shadow more by memory than sight, and was nearly to the fireplace when the reading light next to the couch on the opposite wall flickered on.

“Most burglars don’t leave notes,” Connie said. “Why . . . wait, you’re the girl from this afternoon, aren’t you?” A nearly empty glass of whiskey sat on the end table next to her.

Ali nodded, her heart too far into her throat to allow her to speak.

“Why have you come here?” Connie asked. Her worn lavender night dress rustled when she leaned forward, but she did not rise.

“To say ‘goodbye,’ and for your poker,” Ali said. “I . . . um . . . was going to leave you money for the poker. Please, I need it.”

Connie sighed. “I’ve been here for half an hour, hiding from my dreams. In them, I’m a mother, with a stubborn, haughty, and wonderful little girl, a little girl who screams at the touch of iron.”

“That’s . . .” Ali began to reach out to her, then stopped herself when she saw her mother pull away.

“Is this some sort of sick mind trick?” Connie asked. “What happened to me?”

“Nothing I can fix,” Ali said. “I can’t fix it . . . God, I can’t fix anything. All I can do is try to make sure it never happens again.”

“You hid from that poker last time,” Connie said, gesturing at the fireplace. “Why do you want it now?”

“Dev needs it,” Ali said.

“Take it, then,” Connie said. “Take it and leave me alone. My dreams are bad enough, but seeing you in person makes me want to cry for no reason at all.”

“Thank you. I’m sorry, I couldn’t stop them, I couldn’t save your . . .” Ali cut herself off. They’d taken so much from her, even her humanity, but if she focused on what she’d lost then she was going to lose Dev, too. “Thank you.” She reached out and took the poker, getting it off the rack of fireplace tools and holding it for nearly a full second before dropping it and falling to her knees.

“What’s wrong?” Connie asked, jumping to her feet.

“Oh, God, that iron,” Ali said. She struggled to her feet, reached down, and dragged the poker for a few steps before falling again. The mass of metal felt like a vacuum ripping out her soul.

“Stop it! Stop!” Connie said. “Let me take you to a hospital.”

“No! I need to get this to Dev,” Ali said.

“He can’t possibly need it that . . .” Connie trailed off when Ali looked into her eyes.

Ali got the poker a few more steps the next time before dropping it again and collapsing against the counter island that marked the edge of the kitchen.

“That’s enough,” Connie said. “I’ll go put this into Aspasia for you.” She got the poker nearly to the front door before she, too, dropped it.

“What’s wrong?” Ali asked, still breathing heavily from the pain.

“Your car. How the hell do I know the name of your car?”

“You helped me pick her out at the used car lot,” Ali said, so surprised she didn’t even consider lying.

Connie straightened up and picked up the poker again. “I’m going with you,” she said. “I don’t know what’s going on here, but I sure as hell am going to find out.”

“It’s too dangerous,” Ali said, following her out into the night. “I can’t let you do this for me.”

“This poker is killing you,” Connie said. She tossed it into Aspasia’s back seat. “I can’t just send you out with it.”

“Yes, you can,” Ali said. She knew exactly what to do now, and the knowledge only made her more certain that she had to die tonight. “Go . . . go back inside, Mother.” Each word made her sicker to her stomach to speak it, and she sobbed as her mother walked away, eyes blank and docile, and shut the door.

****

A thousand yards of forest had left their mark on Dev before he finally stopped running and leaned, bleeding, against an ancient tree. What moonlight slipped through the forest canopy illuminated cuts all over his legs from undergrowth and a few on his his arms where he’d held them up to protect his face.

“Damn it,” Dev said to himself. Whatever they were, he had a feeling he couldn’t outrun them. Now that he was forcing himself to think, he realized there was probably a reason they’d told him to run. Bastards probably liked it.

OK, then it was time to do something they wouldn’t like. He forced aside his panic and pain and tried to think. They clearly weren’t lying about having the perimeter under some sort of surveillance, since that must be how the mayor had known that he and Ali had entered the club grounds. However, they must not be able to find anyone inside with any precision, because otherwise why bother trying to mark him?

Dev took a deep breath and pondered this. Their comments had also implied they didn’t need the moonlight to see, so they must be able to look for him in some other way. But what other light could they . . .

“Infrared!” Dev said, then shut his mouth in case they could somehow hear him. Infrared, just like human hunters used (illegally) at night. It would also explain why the Mayor’s only failed hunt had been on a “sodden” day. Someone who’d hidden under cold, wet dirt or leaves would have had a layer of water absorbing the heat from their body, a frigid and effective way to hide their heat signature.

Dev jogged downhill, looking for a stream. Sure enough, about a hundred yards later he found a stream, one of those cold little mountain brooks that had been steadily carving into the hills since dinosaurs had roamed them. The area around it was wetter than the rest of the forest, and he went to work collecting leaves and mud.

By the time the horn blew, he’d covered himself with a thoroughly disgusting paste of mud and wet leaves, and he made sure to breathe into a little cave he’d dug in the dirt. It wasn’t long-term camouflage, for sure, but he only needed it until the dawn. Even if they broke their word, they would be able to see him in normal light by then, anyway.

The next fifteen minutes were the hide-and-seek of Dev’s nightmares. Hooves periodically pounded through the forest around him, consuming Dev with both curiosity and fear of what Ali had seen earlier. The beast’s cry was a cross between a horse’s neigh and a lion’s roar, and as the night wore on and the cold seeped into Dev’s bones, the beast took on a more frustrated and angry tone.

The hooves slowed to a trot up the slope, and Dev realized it must be honing in on the end of his headlong run through the forest. His mad dash had no doubt left a trail anyone could track and, with nothing else to go on, the Mayor was probably looking for any hint of a trail from that point on.

Dev’s fingers tightened instinctively around a rock, the one thing he’d buried in the mud for an emergency weapon. It wasn’t likely to do much good against a murderous, magical horse beast, but he refused to go down without a fight.

Closer came the hoofbeats, moving slowly down the slope and looking for the slightest evidence of a trail. It was only a hundred yards away when the blast of the hunting horn once again split the night, and its hooves thundered away toward the source of the call, somewhere near the office trailer.

Dev was considering whether to try to take the opportunity to move elsewhere when he heard something moving through the forest upstream of him. It crashed around erratically, the polar opposite of the beast’s purposeful gait.

As it grew closer, Dev realized it was the opposite of the mayor in another way, too. Where the mayor had scoured the area for Dev with no success, this thing was heading straight toward him.

Dev levered himself up and rose to his feet. It wasn’t approaching quickly, but he could only escape it by running, and that would doubtless alert the mayor. He looked down at the rock in his hand and swallowed hard. He had no chance at all against any of these creatures, but even so, there was no sense in fighting more than one at a time. He would face this thing here.

It wasn’t far now, only fifty yards or so, but moving more slowly. Dev crept toward it on an oblique path, trying to catch it from the side. At this range, he was starting to be able to make out individual footfalls, heaving breaths, moans. . . .

“Oh, God,” Dev said. He was running even before he heard her call out to him.

Even at top speed, he still didn’t make it before she collapsed in a small clearing near the brook, and for the first time that night he felt terror. “Ali!” he hissed to her.

“Dev,” she whispered back, her voice barely louder than the night breeze. “Present.”

“What?” he asked, kneeling down next to her and taking her head in his hands.

“Brought you . . . present,” she said, making a vague motion with her left arm.

His gaze followed her arm and found a glint in the moonlight, silver on black. “That’s . . . What are you doing with that much iron? It could have killed you!”

“It did,” she said, then coughed. Blood dribbled from her lips, the fluid stained black by the moonlight. “I’m . . . monster. Kill us all. I got . . .” Another cough. “Got his wife.”

“I told you you’re not . . .” he trailed off. Pounding hoofbeats were coming up the creek bed toward them.

“Morgan . . . dead,” Ali said. “They . . . silver knife, sucked out her life . . . tricked me . . . God, we ate her.” She coughed again, bringing up more blood.

Hoofbeats turned to footsteps behind Dev as he picked up the poker, but he didn’t care what it was behind him now. It was going to die.

“That was very helpful, Fiona,” Mayor Vance said. “I’m glad to see you joining the hunt. Devon, you look absolutely wret—Bloody hell!”

Vance jumped back with amazing speed . . . and less amazing aim. He managed to avoid Dev’s swing by mere inches, only to end up slamming into a tree and falling to the ground. “Where did all of that iron come from?” he asked, rising to his feet.

“Gift from a friend,” Dev said, stalking toward him.

“Waste of a gift, then,” Vance said, then began to run circles around Dev. Literally. Vance was moving so quickly that his limbs were just a blur. Dev tried to keep the poker aimed at him at all times, but was forced to turn around so much that he started to grow dizzy.

The Mayor struck at Dev’s first stumble, slashing him across the back and darting away before Dev could respond. The cut burned far more than an ordinary blade, and for the first time in his life Dev understood what Ali meant when she’d described the touch of iron as “ripping a bit of her soul away.”

“Delicious,” Vance said, leaning against another of the ancient trees surrounding the clearing. “Your life is invigorating. I think I’ll have another sip.”

“Like Hell you will!” Dev said, and charged at him. The mayor dodged aside, circling Dev too fast for him to follow. Dev kept closing, though, and tried to catch him in the arc of a wide swing. The mayor dodged around it, though, and delivered another cut to Dev’s left arm.

Dev did his best to ignore the vicious pain and turned to face the mayor again. He had to have a weakness.

“Why are you bothering to fight?” Vance asked. “You’re simply inferior.” He charged in for another attack, easily dodging Dev’s attempted block and carving into the left side of Dev’s back.

“Oh, God,” Dev said, falling to one knee from the intense pain.

“The blade lets me drink your life,” Vance said, admiring the silver blade stained black by blood and moonlight. “A cut like that was a refreshing sip, enough to heal the bruise you left when you hit me with that stupid bed. I’m bored of just sipping, though, so I think now it’s time to drink deep.”

Dev gritted his teeth and ripped off his necklace with his left arm, clutching the wrought iron pendant in his fist. He had only one chance to make this work. “Come and get it!” he shouted, rising to his feet and charging at the mayor. He held the poker high, as if to swing down on the man’s head.

The mayor charged to Dev’s left, avoiding the poker just like he had before. This time, though, he stumbled when he got within arm’s reach, thrown off by the iron in Dev’s hand just like he’d been by the near miss of the poker on Dev’s first swing a few minutes earlier.

Dev twisted away from Vance’s now wobbly knife, taking a deep slash in his left arm that had been meant as a stab into his heart. It all bought him just enough time to bring the poker down onto Vance’s shoulder.

Vance’s bones didn’t so much snap as disintegrate under the impact, leaving Dev with a sensation akin to smashing a baseball bat into a mound of pudding. The Mayor collapsed to the ground under the blow, screaming. He tried to roll away, but with only one working arm he wasn’t able to escape completely. Even so, Dev could barely see through his own pain, and his next strike merely crushed the man’s right leg.

Vance cried out again and rolled over. “Die, dammit!” he screamed, summoning up some reserve of strength to launch himself at Dev for a stab. With one leg shattered, though, he stumbled as he moved, giving Dev just enough time to level the poker and spit him on its point.

They stood frozen for a moment, Dev staring at the point of Vance’s bloody knife hovering six inches from his nose, and Vance staring at the iron embedded in his chest.

“Fucking thug,” Vance said, glowing with silver light. He coughed up a bit of blood, then vanished in a haze of silver mist. The knife hung in the air for a moment where his hand had been, then dropped softly to the forest floor.

Dev stood there for several seconds, awash in pain from the gashes in his body and soul, before he realized someone was clapping.

“Bravo,” Carey said, walking into the clearing. “I’ve never seen a human fight like that.”

“And I take it,” Dev said, huffing and raising the poker again, “that you want an encore?”

“Oh, no,” Carey said. He unholstered his Glock casually, not bothering to aim it at Dev. “I’m quite content with the situation now. You’ve killed my father, and if I’m not mistaken in what I’m sensing, my rapidly expiring little sister there seems to have killed my mother. But for you two, it would have been centuries before I’d come into this district as my inheritance.”

“Ali’s dying?” Dev asked.

“Yes, though even if she weren’t, I’d technically have to kill her for killing Mother. Listen, human, as the author of my sudden good fortune, you’ve inspired me to a rare fit of generosity. Step away from that knife and leave this town, and I’ll let you live. Hell, I’ll even throw in $5,000 cash. Go start over somewhere and forget all of this.”

Moonlight glinted off the knife, glimmering in the dark and wet with Dev’s blood. “Wait, Ali mentioned a silver knife,” Dev said. “Is this what you used to kill Morgan?”

“Fiona is delirious,” Carey said. “It’s just a silver keepsake, something that’s been in the family for a few generations. It’s not worth anything like the $5,000 I’m offering you.”

“So what you’re really saying is that this is a powerful piece of ancient magic,” Dev said.  As he knelt to take the knife, he realized his axe-head pendant was still clutched in his left hand.

The bullet whizzed by Dev’s ear before he’d even realized Carey had aimed the gun at him. “Back away, human,” Carey said. “That belongs to me.”

“Fine, fine,” Dev said. He dropped the pendant onto the knife as he stood back up, a little iron landmine for Carey to find. “It’s all yours.” He backed away slowly, till he was about ten yards away from the knife.

“As it should be,” Carey said, stepping forward. He kept the Glock trained on Dev, but his eyes were on the knife.

“I just want to get out of here,” Dev said, trying to sound scared. Carey had no reason to let Dev live except to consume him the way the mayor had wanted to, but Dev didn’t dare let on that he knew that.

“I’ll release you in just a moment,” Carey said, kneeling to take the knife.

Dev tensed.

“Now,” Carey said, “it’s finally . . . Son of a bitch!” he shouted, yanking his hand away and lurching to his feet. By the time he looked back up, Dev had covered half the distance between them . . . and the boy’s hands were empty.

Carey launched himself backward, but it was too late. The poker caught him in the legs, crushing them like jelly below his knees. He screamed from the pain in his disintegrating bones and fired wildly in Dev’s direction.

Dev dove through the hail of bullets, trying to get low to the ground and crawl toward the poker. He didn’t quite make it. One bullet buried itself in his leg, making him stumble, and another caught him in the stomach before he went down.

“Damn it!” Dev grunted, trying to ignore the pain of what was probably a mortal wound. He was so close. He had to stop Carey, had to . . .

A glint on the ground in front of him derailed his train of thought. It was the knife, lying in the dirt where first Dev and then Carey had dropped it. Dev grabbed it, a horrible plan forming in his mind.

“I’m going to rip your throat out!” Carey screamed. Dev could see the police chief in the moonlight, his hands shaking from the pain while he tried to draw a new magazine from his belt to reload his Glock.

“No,” Dev said, making a strange half-crawl along the ground with his two hands and one good leg. Blood poured from the wounds on his leg and stomach, but at least it wasn’t arterial spurting.

“I should have killed you this morning,” Carey said, slamming the magazine into the gun. He racked the slide with inhuman speed, but Dev was already on him.

The first bullet grazed Dev’s side just before he stabbed Carey in the gut, and the second slammed into his left shoulder just afterward. Carey screamed then, an animal cry that was more of a howl than a voice, and there was no third shot. His whole body vanished into silver mist, just like Vance’s had, but this mist all poured into the knife and disappeared into Dev’s body.

Dev fell to his knees, gripping his stomach and moaning. Silver fire danced over his wounds, a burning, healing pain. It stopped less than a minute later, and when Dev took his hands away from his stomach he saw fresh blood, but not the wound from which it had flowed.

“I’ll be damned,” he said to the world. “That worked.” He wasn’t dead, and in fact felt more energized, more alive, than he had since he’d woken up that morning.

He looked at the knife in wonder, first, then in horror when he realized what he’d done. Of course these things were monsters. If humans had this kind of power, God knows what they’d do with it.

Dev sighed, realizing what he was going to do with it. He’d known since he picked up the knife, but the plan had seemed so far-fetched at the time that he hadn’t worried much about it. He still had a choice, of course. He could run away from this damned wilderness . . . this whole damned state, and no one would ever know. All he had to do was let nature take its course and close her eyes forever.

Dev tore off, running through the trees as fast as he could. The energy he’d stolen even gave him a bit of a speed boost, and seconds later he was kneeling at Ali’s side.

“Ali, Ali are you–”

“Dev?” she whispered.

“I’m here,” he said, putting a hand on her forehead. It was cool to the touch.

“Did . . .” She trailed off, and with difficulty took another breath. “W-win?”

“Yes. And I got that knife.” He took her right hand and wrapped it around the hilt.

“No . . ” she tried to release her fingers and move away, but Dev held her in place. “Now . . . we’re even.”

“You’re wrong,” Dev said, leaning close to her face. “Listen to me! My entire life, everyone’s always looked at me and seen a thug. My teachers, other students, my friends, even my mother. Sometimes I fought it, sometimes I gave in, but it didn’t matter. I was just a thug. When I looked into your eyes that first time, I didn’t even recognize the man I saw there. We were even from Day One, you and I. Everyone else still looks at me and sees a thug, but because of you, that’s not what I see in the mirror anymore. I see the man I want to be and the man you think I am.”

Dev took a deep breath and kissed Ali’s forehead. He’d have to do the next part fast, or even with this pep talk he was going to lose his nerve. “If I let you die,” he said, “then all I’m going to see in the mirror is a coward. I can’t go back to that, not after I saw something better in your eyes. Goodbye, Ali.”

“No, please,” she said, trying to tug her hand away from the knife. All she succeeded in doing was getting a couple of fingers off of it, but Dev kept his hand wrapped around hers enough to keep it on the hilt and plunged it into his stomach.

The pain was worse than anything he’d ever experienced before, but he did his best to keep it off his face for Ali’s sake. That worked for about a second, after which his world exploded.

****

Dev awoke to a dawn chorus of birdsong and sobbing, and somehow the latter was far sweeter to his ears. “Ali!” he said, sitting up so fast that he nearly passed out. The explosion seemed to have knocked away some of the mud and leaves, but he was still filthy.

“Dev?” Ali shot up from where she lay, reaching out to touch his face. “But I’m alive, so I thought you must be . . . I mean, you stabbed yourself . . .” she trailed off and gestured at his stomach. There was a huge scar where he’d stabbed himself, as well as what looked like globs of molten silver that had burned his skin.

“I have no idea what happened there,” he said, looking down at the scar. “Did . . . did that knife explode?”

“You don’t know?” Ali looked around for a moment, then pointed to a spot about two feet behind Dev. “I think that’s a piece of the hilt there.”

Dev twisted around to look, then turned back to Ali. “I think you’re right. I wonder if it was that I gave my life to you voluntarily that caused it to blow up, or if both our hands on the hilt short-circuited it?”

Ali raised her eyebrows. “Are you telling me you stabbed yourself in the stomach without knowing what would happen?”

“It was the only thing I could think of to save you,” Dev said, “and, technically, I made you stab me.”

“That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard of,” Ali said.

“Says the girl who killed herself giving me an iron poker instead of getting the hell out of town.”

“Touché. So we’re both idiots.”

“Pretty much,” Dev said.

She smiled for a moment, but it faded away. “Damn it,” she said, “I didn’t want you to die for me! I’m as much of a monster as they are. I tried to tell you they tricked me into consuming Morgan’s life with them. I feel like a goddamn cannibal.”

“You didn’t know,” Dev said. “It wasn’t your fault.”

“It sure feels like my fault.”

“Well, it wasn’t. I’m the only one here who did that intentionally to someone, so if either of us is the monster, it’s me.”

“You . . . who did you . . .”

“Carey,” Dev said. “He’d already shot me twice, and I used the knife to kill him and rejuvenate myself.”

“I see. But you didn’t know—”

“I was pretty sure it would work. I might have been able to reach the poker, but I went for the knife instead because I wanted to rip his life away. It was the only thing I could think of to save you.”

Ali looked down at the ground. “God, Dev, I’m not worth it. Don’t become a monster for me.”

“It was a split-second decision,” Dev said. “You didn’t make me anything I wasn’t already.”

“Dev . . .” Ali trailed off, looking at the sun rising over the hills instead of at Dev. “That knife was ancient, wasn’t it?” she said after a moment.

Dev nodded. “Carey said it was generations old, and who knows how long those things live? That knife might have been a thousand years old.”

“And in all of that time,” Ali said, the edges of her lips curling into her familiar smile, “last night must have been the first time someone used it to give their own life to another. All those centuries of murder, you ended with selflessness.” She hugged him. “That’s some bad-ass kindness right there.”

“I never thought of it like that,” Dev said, hugging her back. “I like it, though.” He paused. “Ali? You’ve still got the locket on you, right?”

“Um . . . yes.” She looked up at him and raised her eyebrows. “Why do you ask?”

“It may be my imagination, but just now, when I was hugging you, I swear it hurt me. It was like the locket was giving me just a touch of sunburn.”

Ali looked down at her locket. “That’s how it makes me feel . . . except it doesn’t hurt as much as it normally does. Dev, what the hell did you do to us?”

He shrugged. “I told you, I have no idea.”

“What if you’ve made me more human and you more like . . .” She waved her hands at herself. “Me . . . whatever I am, anyway?”

“Beats dying,” Dev said.

Ali put her head in her hands. “Damn it, now I really have made you a monster.”

“I think we’re whatever we want to be,” Dev said, putting an arm around her shoulders. “And I just want to be me.”

“What if ‘me’ is a monster like me, though?”

“You mean the girl who killed herself trying to save me? The world could do with a few more monsters like that. And let’s not forget I killed two men . . . er . . . somethings tonight before whatever happened to me, not after.” He shuddered. “God, am I glad that knife is gone. I know draining Carey’s life to save yours was wrong, but I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”

“I understand,” Ali said. “Nobody should ever have to face the choice between committing murder and letting someone die who they . . . they . . .”

“Love,” Dev whispered, filling in the word.

“Me . . . me, too,” Ali whispered back.

They sat together in silence for a few minutes, listening to the birds and watching the sunbeams dance through the leaves. “Dev . . . I can’t live here anymore, not after yesterday,” Ali said eventually. “Will you . . . I mean, I don’t want to leave . . .”

He gave her a squeeze. “You were the only good thing about this town,” he said. “Let’s go make a mess of someplace new.”

****

Share

About Steve Quinn

Steve Quinn is a lawyer by day. Usually. He does a lot of project management and some coding, too, and occasionally fixes his colleagues’ computers with a Sonic Screwdriver. When he’s not writing legal or computer code, he’s probably being hit with escrima sticks. He can be found online at https://www.steve-quinn.net or on Twitter @ScribblingSteve.

One thought on “The Touch of Iron

Leave a Reply