I spent a long, long time just staring at the egg.
One of the most valuable, most sought-after objects in the entire world — on many, many worlds — and it was lying here on the roof of a ruined museum in a flooded marshland in Boston.
It was intact, yes, but if it was still viable, it wouldn’t be for long.
I had to get the egg to safety. Out of here. Someplace safe …. Where? No idea. Ellie might know. Good plan. Get the egg, run like hell straight home.
Shoving my knife back into my boot, I awkwardly pulled the saddlebag and bedrolls from my shoulder. More thorns stabbed at me, snagged the blankets. Hissing, I reached through the branches, and carefully half-rolled, half-pulled the egg against my legs. I flipped open the saddlebag and tried to push the egg inside.
Not even close. The saddlebag was deep enough, but not wide enough. The egg wouldn’t even fit through the opening.
I unrolled one of blankets, positioned the egg in the middle, and then rolled it back up again. The egg bulged. It was large enough that there were only three layers of blanket around it. I added the second blanket, creating something like a thick rope with a watermelon-sized bump in the middle. Pulling out a knife again, I hacked and sawed at the leather saddlebag until it flopped open, and then used the strap to wrap that around the egg, too.
Six layers of blanket, plus leather. That would have to do.
I popped my head back up again.
Looping the blanket-rope across my back, I tied the ends together in the middle of my chest. I bounced on my feet a couple of times to make sure that it would stay in position, then began climbing across the nest again.
Halfway across the roof, the space for the shattered glass ceiling a dark hole to my right.
Past the halfway point, thorns clawing at me.
Three-quarters of the way there, and I could see the railing of the fire escape poking above the edge of the roof. I was sweating hard, and very thirsty. Next time, get a puncture proof —
— the nest shifted under me. Wood cracked. The roof groaned. The groan turned into a loud moan, stone popping, metal tearing.
The roof disappeared beneath my feet. I went sideways, down, spinning, thorns grabbing at me as the nest tumbled through the hole.
Branches caught, tangled. I dropped my knife, dropped my torch, reached. Thorns and bark ripped at my hands. Loud cracking sounds and screaming and the deafening concussion of stone and metal hitting the courtyard below.
My arms jerked, my shoulders pulled. I stopped falling.
Dust, so much dust, grit and bits of bone and stone and other awful things that I shouldn’t be breathing. I closed my eyes, opened them, blinked rapidly.
Camo guy, gaping at me through a window on the second floor. Beard and old-style helmet and fuck he had a shotgun —
My body moved. One hand tightened around the branch, the other reached to the back of my belt. My knife flew straight, hitting him in the middle of the throat. He gurgled and fell backwards.
The branch ripped.
I had a split second to take in everything below me: the bits of dead nest, the broken pieces of stone, the gnomeling hive, its once beautiful flowers and leaves torn and covered in dust.
And then I hit the ground with my face.
I couldn’t have been unconscious for more than a few seconds. I woke up to yelling and gunfire and a terrible hissing.
Something squished under me. I raised my head, then my torso. Dead gnomelings. A few dozen, from the amount of blood and crushed organs and bones that clung to my dragon silk shirt and leather corset.
The hissing got louder. So did the gunfire.
Blinking, I looked up.
Gnomelings. Dozens and dozens of hissing, angry, sharp-toothed gnomelings, their wings beating so fast that they were a blur. They surrounded me, some hovering in the air, others perched on hydrangea and amaryllis stems or inside the soft blooms.
Their mouths opened, showing more teeth.
Creaking and metal tearing, so loud that it drowned out the guns for a moment.
I tilted my head back and saw the remaining kithirin nest and part of the roof begin to cave in.
I pushed to my feet, heart thundering, and bolted across the courtyard. I shoved through the flowers that made up the hive, arms over my head as debris fell all around me. I leapt through an open doorway, sliding on wet leaves and animal dung, and crawled around to curl against the wall.
A grey-brown cloud of dust, metal, wood, bones, and dead gnomelings plumed through the doorway. I couldn’t hear anything over the repeated crash as more and more of the roof fell in. My ears rang and my eyes stung. I was coughing, choking, I couldn’t find good air ….
I reached blindly for a pouch on my right side. My hands stung and felt slick. I pulled out a slimy aqueous mushroom and shoved it into my mouth. I inhaled slowly, letting the toxic air filter through the mushroom. It worked underwater; maybe it would work here, too.
Mostly. The air tasted funny, but I wasn’t fighting for every breath.
Reaching behind with one hand, my eyes still shut, I felt the egg. Solid. For now.
Footsteps crunched, drawing closer.
Opening my eyes a slit, I saw a woman in camo coming through a side doorway. Arm pressed to her nose and mouth. Pistol in her other hand, aimed right at me.
I really really really missed my bow.
I held still, waiting as she drew closer. Then I lashed out with my leg, knocking her to the side. She stumbled, started to fall. I pulled another knife and slammed the hilt against the side of her head. She crumpled. I grabbed her pistol, climbed to my feet, and ran back through the door she had just exited.
And I ran. Room to room to room, towards the open wall.
More gunfire, bullets tearing through the air around me. I fired back, aiming by sound and the flickers of movement in my peripheral vision.
The gun clicked empty and I tossed it aside.
I spit out the aqueous mushroom, ran right into someone in tactical armor, his face covered in paint, rammed my elbow into his nose, kicked his knee in, he went down with a shout, kept running, running.
Pounding footsteps behind me.
Another figure in armor, in the doorway of the next room, the last room, my exit. Black armor, like woven shadows. It seemed to eat the light.
His face was altered by green and black paint, but I knew that armor.
He swung his pistol around.
I dropped onto my side, sliding on wet leaves past him, through the door. His pistol cracked and I heard the grunt and thud of a body falling behind me.
I pushed myself around, curling up against the wall again. He moved to the far side of the door, calmly ejecting and replacing the clip in his pistol while rifles and shotguns blasted at the stone all around us. Chips of rock cut through the air. I turned my face away, reaching for another pouch.
Pulling out a second spell ball, I held it close to my mouth, whispering different words this time. With a quick look and a nod from Dare, I flung the spell ball back through the doorway.
Two men in camo, their faces twisted with anger.
I turned my face away again, and a split second later the ball exploded in a flash of searing light. Less than a second after that, Dare’s pistol cracked four times as he leaned around the door, and both men thudded to the ground.
Was it quiet? Had the shooting stopped?
I wasn’t sure. My ears were still ringing and, damn it, my face hurt. So did my hands. My legs were shaking from exertion, and I was pretty sure that I had a gigantic bruise stretching from my ribs to my knee from my inelegant slide across the floor.
Dare loomed. He glared down at me. “Doctor Moretti.” His voice was pitched low, not meant to carry beyond this room.
I tilted my head back and smiled up at him, keeping my own voice quiet. “Special Agent in Charge Dare. What brings you to the Fens on this fine evening?”
He didn’t answer, instead turning his attention to the other people who were entering the room from the side and front doors.
Two, four, six, seven. An eight person team, counting Dare. One of them was holding his nose and glowering at me. Now that I got a better look, he seemed vaguely familiar. Maybe I had seen him in Attleboro, at the Capron Park Zoo, when my ex-husband and I were busy rescuing the love of his life.
Actually, one of the women on the team looked familiar, too. Ah, right. The suit who had driven me home from the Zoo.
Dare shoved his pistol back into its shoulder holster and motioned to his team. Most of them spread out, taking defensive positions at the doors and the big hole in the wall. One of the women moved closer to Dare. She wore a headset, and an antenna stuck out of her backpack.
Dare whispered something to her that I couldn’t hear. She nodded and retreated to the far corner, one hand pressed to her headphones.
Grimacing, I shifted position and carefully slid the blanket-rope around my chest. My ribs protested. I managed to maneuver the egg around so that it rested above my stomach. I gently ran my hands over the leather, leaving smears of blood.
No wonder my hands hurt.
The egg still seemed to be intact.
“Care to share with the rest of the class, Doctor?”
I flicked up my gaze and found Dare crouched in front of me, his lips tight with what I assumed was disapproval. If he noticed the crushed and smeared gnomelings amidst all the other stains on my clothes, he didn’t care.
“Not until you answer my question: why are you here, now, in the Fens?”
Instead of answering, he reached out and lifted one of my hands away from the egg. He flipped it over to examine my palm. I flinched when I saw the bits of bark and thorn mixed with blood and torn skin. Forget about scars. If I didn’t get that cleaned, soon and thoroughly, the wound would get infected.
Ellie would never forgive me.
Dare whistled, a trill like a bird call. The man with the broken nose pulled off his pack and tossed a small bundle towards the Special Agent. Dare caught it, tugged the leather thong open one-handed, and lifted out a small plastic envelope filled with reddish powder.
I knew what that was.
I grit my teeth and forced myself to breathe slowly through my nose as he poured it over first one injured hand and then the other.
The powder burned.
“We received reports of a dragon in the marsh,” he said, his voice pitched even lower. “When we arrived four days ago, we found dragon-winged gnomelings. We thought maybe the reports had been garbled, but we continued our investigation, just in case. And we found cause for concern.”
Breathe. “The laughter?”
He nodded slowly. “It’s not the Jinmenju tree. It moves around, and its leaving dead spots all over the Fens. There might be a woodwose in the area, too.”
A woodwose? Okay, that explained the huge muddy footprints.
And it sort of explained the laughter. The woodwose was hunting whatever was causing the dead spots, but it couldn’t travel far from the river. It had to stay in or near the water, and the laughter was farther inland.
So it was smart, whatever was laughing while it slowly killed the world.
“What about those guys?” I tilted my head towards the bodies that lay outside the room.
The burn began to fade.
Dare poured a cool blue liquid over my skin, then began to wrap my hands in cloth bandages. “Mercenary company out of Philadelphia. Just arrived this evening. The one we caught was not forthcoming with information, so we’re not certain as to their objective.”
I flexed my hands experimentally. Maybe it was fortunate that I didn’t have my bow, after all. I would barely be able to hold a knife, let alone grip my bow and nock and loose an arrow.
Had the mercenaries’ intel been better than Dare’s? They hadn’t been in the Fens for very long, and they had headed straight to the Gardner Museum.
“Not a dragon,” I said. “A kithirin.”
Dare went completely still.
The guy with the broken nose swore.
“The gnomelings killed it. But they missed the egg.”
Dare rose to his feet in one fluid motion. He waved over the woman with the radio. “Cas. Call in immediate evac from gamma. World-walker, code red.”
She nodded stiffly, pressing a hand to her headset again. “Sentinel One, House. House, requesting immediate evac from gamma. World-walker. Code red, repeat code red.”
A pause, and I could feel the tension in the room climb.
Cas shook her head. “World-walker not available, sir. The best House can do is an escort evac from beta.”
“That will have to do. Call and confirm.” Dare reached down, wrapping a hand around my upper arm to pull me to my feet while Cas spoke into her headset. “Moretti, Cas, you’re in the middle with me. Will, Rush, Harrison, take point. Butler, Yung, King, rear. Mission objective has changed: get the kithirin egg out of the Fens and back to House. Move.”
And we stepped out of the ruins of the Gardner Museum and into the night.
We made it through the trees and back to Fenway. Once on the road, we hung a left, leaving the Gardner behind. The ruins of Simmons College poked up through the greenery on our left, the Muddy River gurgling along on our right.
No one spoke. Guns were held at the ready, heads turning as Dare and his team constantly scanned for any threat. I curled my hands protectively around the egg. We walked quickly, but we didn’t run. There were too many things in the dark that might want to chase us.
We were approaching the old intersection of Fenway and Avenue Louis Pasteur when vines swarmed out of the river and tried to grab me. I skipped out of the way, hopping to the side even as Dare grabbed my arm and yanked me towards the far edge of the road.
The vines were bone white and rotting, like all of the color had been bled away, and they leaked a stinky clear fluid. They writhed across the ground, twisting around Cas and the guy with the broken nose to reach for me again.
I tried to grab a fire packet from my belt, but my fingers wouldn’t close around it.
The team broke into a protective half-circle, rifles and pistols loud in the darkness, bullets chewing up the vines, pinging and sparking off the old asphalt. Bits of plant flesh rolled across the ground, and quickly disintegrated.
The few intact vines retreated back into the river, the water bubbling and slurping. The guns went quiet.
Dare moved around me, positioning himself between me and the river. He waved his hand, and we started walking again, quickly, quietly.
Roots exploded out of the ground, bone white like the vines, leaking clear fluid. They erupted through the asphalt and along the edge of the woods, tearing up the ground to knock over trees and send chunks of the road tumbling.
Closer and closer, encircling us, trapping us.
This time I was able to get my fingers around the fire packet. I whispered the right words and flung the pouch at the thickest clump of roots. The packet burst open on impact, the powder spreading through the air and catching flame. Blue fire raced through the thicket of roots, burning hot enough to melt metal. For a moment. Just as quickly, it went out, leaving a wide swath of ash.
“Go!” Dare shoved me forward and now we were running. I could feel the residual heat through my leather jacket and silk-lined jeans.
I didn’t even see the vine. I only felt it grab my ankle and then I was on the ground, on my back, being dragged towards the water.
Dare yelled my name, snagged my arm, and he was on the ground, being pulled along after me.
I struggled with the blankets, frantic to pull the egg loose before I ended up in the water —
The cold, dirty river closed over my head. Water flooded my boots, seeped under my clothes. Dare’s hand tightened around my wrist and then was gone and I was flying through the water. I closed my eyes against the grit and darkness, disoriented.
The bandages weighed down my hands. My fingers scrabbled awkwardly, trying to open the pouch. Mushrooms and spell bottles and herbs spilled, tumbled away. One. I caught one mushroom, and shoved it into my mouth.
I could breathe.
Still blind, I tugged and yanked until the bandage on my right hand finally pulled free. My palm stung, the skin that had just started to knit together now torn apart again. I grabbed the remaining knife at my back and swung down towards the vine that encased my ankle.
I missed. I couldn’t push my arm down far enough, not against the rush of the water.
My arms were beginning to shake, and I could feel my stomach tightening against the cold.
Another swipe, another miss.
I had no idea where I was, how long the vine had been dragging me, where it was dragging me ….
Laughter echoed through the water.
I strained against the current, slashing with the knife. I hit something. The vine shuddered.
And then there was something solid under me and I was moving up, up, up. It lifted me out of the water, up into the air. I blinked, scrubbing water from my eyes.
The woodwose held me in the palm of its hand, twenty feet above the Muddy River.
Crystal eyes studied me. Massive curling horns, like those of a ram, but wood, wildflowers poking up among the ridges. Moss-like hair, more moss on its shoulders and up and down its arms. A body of rock that behaved more like flesh than stone.
I spat out the mushroom and wiped a shaking hand over my mouth.
“Wwhhhhh,” the woodwose said.
The vine pulled free from my ankle and I fell back onto my butt. Water squelched out of my clothes.
The woodwose held up its other hand. The vine dangled, twitching and twisting. The woodwose pulled, tugging, and more of the vine emerged from the river. It wrapped more and more of the vine around its hand, pulling, pulling, pulling, until a sickening white bundle of rot emerged from the river. It was a grotesquerie, a bizarre combination of viney plant and octopus.
The thing squealed and pulsed as the woodwose hauled it further out of the water.
The woodwose lowered me back down into the river. The water came up to my neck and I backpedaled, kicking and swiping my arms to get closer to shore. The egg sat heavy against my stomach.
Hands closed around my shoulders and elbows, dragging me until my feed touched the muddy bottom. Dare and whatever his name was. Rush. I really needed to apologize for breaking his nose.
There was a low roar and frantic splashing.
I looked up to see that the woodwose had hauled the viney octopus thing all the way out of the river. The grotesquerie was madly wrapping its tentacles around the woodwose, twisting and trying to crush, desperate to escape.
Face contorting into an expression of outrage and grim determination, the woodwose peeled the vines loose, grabbed the main body of the octopus, crushed it, wrung it, and tore it in half with a disgusting wet shredding sound. The woodwose lifted its arms and flung the pieces over our heads, tentacles waving. The remains crashed into the central tower of Emmanuel College, knocking it over with a thunderous crash.
The woodwose turned and roared towards the far shore, deeper into the Fens.
Then mocking laughter that made my hair stand on end.
The woodwose snarled and huffed. Turning, it made its way towards us, every step kicking up waves. It stopped some fifteen feet back — within easy reach for a woodwose — and stared down at me.
“Wwhhhhh,” the woodwose said, and continued to stare, crystal eyes bright.
I reached for the strap that held the ruined saddlebag in place.
Dare’s voice was low in my ear, grim. “You’re giving it the egg.”
I continued to unwrap the protective layers of leather and blanket. “You really want me to tell it no?”
He didn’t answer.
The last soggy layer of blanket peeled away and fell into the river. The golden egg lay in my hands, still intact, not a single crack. The shell gleamed, and I felt something inside kick.
“Haawwwaaahhh,” the woodwose said, a sound that seemed both relieved and annoyed.
I held out the egg.
The woodwose bent and extended its hand, and I gently set the kithirin egg in its palm. The woodwose straightened and brought its hand to its chest. The stone parted, opening like green wood or flesh, and the egg disappeared inside. The stone closed back up behind it.
With a final “Wwhhaa,” the woodwose turned away and began to walk down the river.
Away from us. Away from the mocking laughter.
“Hey! Wait a second!” I splashed back into the river, shaking off the hands that reached for me. “Hey!”
The woodwose stopped and half turned around.
I waved a hand towards the far shore. “That thing! That laughter! That’s the danger, isn’t it? The reason the gnomelings are here. That’s what’s going to destroy Boston!”
The woodwose tilted its head at me.
“How do we stop it? You can’t, but we can. We can leave the river, walk the earth. We’ll stop it. Tell us how!”
Crystal eyes left me to study the depths of the Fens. The moss on the woodwose’s head and shoulders danced in the light breeze.
It knelt suddenly, plunging a hand deep into the water and into the mud along the bottom. Then deeper, up to its elbow, its shoulder. The woodwose growled, sounds that might have been words slipping across my skin.
With a grunt and a heave, the woodwose pulled its arm back out of the mud, out of the river. It held a glowing ball of magma the size of a baseball in its hand. I could feel the heat and took a step back. The woodwose blew on the magma, cooling the exterior to solid black stone.
When the woodwose held out the rock, I took it. My arm nearly collapsed under the weight and I had to cradle it against my chest.
I frowned at the stone, then up at the woodwose. “Fire?”
“Wwhhhwww.” The woodwose dipped its great horned head.
It turned away again, steps taking it deeper and deeper into the Muddy River. It sank as it walked, gradually disappearing beneath the water; returning to the World Tree.
Dare took the heavy stone from my hand.
“What’s this about Boston being destroyed?”
[End Part Four. Continue to the conclusion in Part Five.]
[Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine, Eternal Haunted Summer. A complete list of her published anthologies, poems, and short stories can be found there.]