The enormous blue beast bore on them. Grace watched it come. It thundered down the street, its six stumpy legs mashing potholes in the crumbling pavement.
In the past seven hours, she’d used her magic for defence countless times. Blood splattered her face, some dried to flecks, some still wet. Her side burned where a red, furry serpent had bitten her before Nassar chopped off both of its heads. A long rip split her left pant leg, exposing puckered flesh of the calf where a liana stung her with its suckers. It never ended. There was always a new horror waiting to pounce on them from some dark crevice. Grace clenched her teeth and watched the beast charge.
It brushed against a house, sending a shower of broken boards in the air, and kept coming, cavernous mouth gaping wide, the sound of its stomping like a cannon blast salute at a funeral. Boom-boom-boom.
Keep it together. Keep it steady.
The beast was almost on her. Two bloodshot eyes glared. The black mouth opened, ready to devour her.
“Now!” Nassar barked.
She slammed her magic into it.
With a surprised roar, the beast rammed the invisible barrier. Her feet slid back from the pressure. The beast’s momentum pitched it to the side. The mammoth body fell, paws in the air. Nassar leaped over it, a feral shadow caught in the moonlight. White light sliced like a huge blade from his hand and Nassar landed by her. Filthy and bloody, he looked demonic.
Behind him the beast lay split open, like a chicken with a cleaved breastbone. The soft, beach-ball-sized sac of its heart palpitated once, twice, and stopped,
Grace stared mutely at the carcass. She had never imagined the night could hide things like it - terrible, awful things. She felt like she had aged a lifetime.
A soft humming filled her skull. She shook her head.
“What is it?” Nassar grasped her face and turned it to him.
He raised his head, listened and grabbed her hand. “Run!”
She’d learned not to ask why. They sprinted, zigzagging through the labyrinthine streets, past overgrown lawns, past an abandoned playground, where small things with round red eyes clutched at the jungle gym with sharp claws, past office buildings, and burst into a park. In the middle of the park lay a pond, bordered by a row of street lamps spilling orange light. The moon slid from the clouds, illuminating the water’s surface and the raised concrete basin of a dried fountain in the centre.
Nassar pulled her into the water and pointed to the fountain. “Go!”
She swam through the murky water without thinking. Something soft brushed her legs. She shied and squeezed a frantic burst of speed from her exhausted body. Dizziness came and then her hand hit the concrete base. She pulled herself up. Nassar climbed up next to her, grabbed her by her waist and hoisted her up into the seven-foot-wide basin. She fell on dried leaves and dirt.
The buzzing grew louder, steady and ominous like the hum of a giant engine.
An invisible whirlpool of magic built around Nassar. He stood cocooned in its fury, his axe held high. His body trembled under the pressure. The cuts and gashes on his arms reopened and bled.
The buzzing swelled like a tidal wave.
She saw the axe fall in an arc, its tip prickling the pond. The magic sucked itself into the axe handle and burst through its blade into the water. The pond became preternaturally calm, its surface smooth like glass. The buzzing vanished.
Nassar swayed. Grace grabbed his shoulders and pulled him against the lip of the basin, steadying him. His hand squeezed hers. He turned carefully, leaped up, and pulled himself into the basin next to her.
A swarm of insects spilled from the street. Green and segmented, like grasshoppers armed with enormous teeth, they were the size of a large cat. They streamed around the water in a mottled mass, bodies upon bodies, but none touching the pond.
“What are they?” Grace whispered hoarsely.
“Akora. The spell keeps them out of the water. As long as nothing disturbs the surface, they can’t see or hear us. Don’t worry. They can’t survive the sun. They’ll stay here entranced by the spell until morning.” He lay on his back and closed his eyes.
Across the water the green insects crawled over the stone benches, perched on lamp posts, and combed the weeds of the once perfectly cut lawn. They had surrounded the pond. Everywhere Grace looked long segmented legs rubbed, sharp mandibles gnawed on random refuse and backs split to flutter pale wings.
There were too many of them.
She felt so hollow. The seven hours she had spent in this place had consumed her: there was nothing left inside her. “We’ll die here,” Grace whispered.
“They’ll eat us, and I’ll never see my mother again.” What was the point of going on? They’d never make it out. She no longer cared if they would.
A warm hand grasped her and pulled her with irresistible strength snug against Nassar’s chest. His arms closed about her, shielding her, shocking her cold body with their heat. His cheek rested against her hair. “I won’t let you die, Grace,” he whispered. “I promise I won’t let you die.”
She lay rigid against his chest, her face in his neck, listening to his strong, even heartbeat. His lips grazed her cheek. “I must be out of my mind,” he whispered and his mouth closed on hers.
He kissed her, at first gently, then harder, as if he tried to breathe his life into her. She felt numb, but he persisted, his kiss passionate and searing. His arms caged her. His large hard body cradled hers, keeping her from slipping off into the empty deadness. His magic wrapped them both. He kissed her again and again, anchoring her, refusing to let her go. Caught on the threshold between complete numbness and painful awareness, Grace teetered, unsure. He pulled her back to life, back to the desperate reality. She didn’t want to face it.
A shudder ran through her. She closed her eyes and let him part her lips with his tongue. He drank her in and finally she thawed. She wanted to live, to survive so she could feel this again. She wanted Nassar.
Tears wet her cheeks.
Nassar released her mouth and crushed her to him. “I want you so much,” he whispered, his green eyes looking into the distance. “And I can’t have you. I really must be cursed.”
She lay in his arms for a long time.
The coal darkness of the sky faded to the pale grey of predawn. Grace stirred. “Why did you do it?” she asked softly. “Why did you become a revenant?”
“I was dying,” he answered, his voice hoarse. “We had a feud with the Garveys. They cornered my brother, John, and I went to get him. John didn’t want to be taken alive. He didn’t think help was coming, and he cursed himself and all those around him with a plague of marrow worms. A suicide curse is very potent. I brought him out of the trap, but the curse had caught me. We were both dying and the family could do nothing to keep us alive. I’d lost consciousness. John knew that if I took his body, I’d gain a temporary boost of power to break the curse. He made the family commence the ritual.”
“He sacrificed himself?” she whispered.
“Yes. I remember there was a rush of red, like I was swimming through a sea of blood and drowning, and then I saw this shape floating in the depths. I thought it was my body and I knew if I wanted to survive, I had to get to it. I grabbed it, saw it was John . . . The pull to live was too strong. I awoke in my brother’s body.”
She put her arms around his neck and kissed his cheek.
“I killed my brother so I could live,” he said. “It doesn’t get any worse than that.”
She simply held him.
A low growl froze both of them. Grace flipped onto her stomach and glanced over the lip of the basin. In the night, the insects had stopped moving. They lay still now, entranced by the spell, their chitin mirroring the grass and weeds around them so closely that if she didn’t know they were there, she would’ve mistaken them for heaps of vegetation.
A lean muscled creature trotted along the edge of the pond. It gripped the ground with four oversized paws armed with sickle claws. Its serpentine tail lashed its dark pelt, which was spotted with flecks of red and yellow. The beast padded down the shore, its dragon-like jaws hanging open, showing off fangs the size of her fingers. Foamy spit leaked from between its teeth, staining the long tuft of red and yellow fur hanging from its chin. It halted, sniffed the air and turned to the basin. Four glowing amber eyes glared at her.
“Sylvester Roar,” Nassar murmured.
Sylvester sniffed the water. His narrow muzzle wrinkled. He looked like he was grinning at them with his monstrous mouth.
Nassar growled. “No, you young idiot! Can’t you see the spell on the water?”
Sylvester snapped his teeth and snarled in a feral glee. An eerie raspy growl came from between his teeth. “I see you, Nassar. You can’t hide from me.”
“Inexperienced fool.” Nassar reached for his axe.
“I’m coming, Nassar. I’m coming for you.” Sylvester gave a short ragged howl and splashed into the water. Little waves ran over the surface of the pond. Behind Sylvester the akora swarm swelled. Buzzing filled the air. Sylvester turned—
Nassar grabbed Grace and forced her to the floor of the basin, next to him.
A hoarse scream sliced through the morning, a terrible howl of a creature in impossible agony being torn to pieces. Grace squeezed her eyes shut. Sylvester screamed and screamed, the buzzing of the akora a morbid choir to his shrieks, until finally he fell silent.
Grace lay still, afraid to breathe. Slowly she opened her eyes.
An akora perched on the lip of the basin. It sighted her with dead black eyes. Its back split, releasing a pale gauze of wings.
Sun broke above horizon. Its rays struck the insect. Tiny cracks split its shiny thorax. The insect shrieked and fled, breaking apart over the pond. Grace rose. All around the pond the insect horde fractured and crumbled under the rays of the sun. The air smelled faintly of smoke. She looked beyond the heaps of melting insects and drew a sharp breath. Past the park, to the right, rose a tall heap of rubble that had been a multistorey building in its former life. Atop the rubble a small white flag fluttered in the wind.