Holly awoke in a pool of mud.
She rose to her feet and brushed gooey silt off her belly and arms. Ugh. She made a face and flicked her fingers, ridding them of muck. Gross. Whoever spiked my punch is going to pay with their motherfucking—
Then she stumbled back in shock, hands stretched reflexively behind her. She was in a vast stretch of storm-soaked desert, evidenced by the archipelago of puddles that dotted the ground. Off in the distance, austere mountains scored the horizon.
Her eyes darted between the puddles, widening in surprise.
They were disappearing.
The thirsty ground was drinking them in. Her eyes dropped to the one by her feet; it was shrinking from a six-foot pond into a small, muddy pane. On its surface she saw a giant barbarian, the same one she’d seen in the bleed between worlds. Her hands flew up in instinctive fear. At the same time, she saw something in the water that made her flinch with dread.
The barbarian’s hand movements had mirrored hers.
Oh my God…what did…that stuff in my eyes, did it…
She lowered her hands, gaping at her upturned palms.
What have I become?
She began clenching her fists—slow and tentatively at first, then with increasing vigor, noting the striated muscles that bulged from her forearms.
My God, she thought, I couldn’t get this yoked if I was the strongest guy in the NFL.
She scanned the horizon with a flinty gaze. An evil smile split her lips.
I’m coming for you, Peter. I’m gonna rip your head off.
After five days of wandering, all thoughts of Peter had vanished from her mind.
The sun continued to shine brightly overhead, leeching her muscles of precious moisture. Her tongue had become a thick wad of woolly cotton. Indifferent shimmer rose in the distance, transforming the air into a suffocating haze.
Holly kept her eyes on the mountains. With each step, fatigue and numbness radiated through her.
She didn’t know for sure, but she had to repeating it. Otherwise, she had no reason to keep going.
A swirl of vertigo spun through her body. She collapsed to her knees. Fell onto her side.
A cloud of dust puffed up from the ground, masking her body in a veil of particulate.
Her eyes slid shut.
“ ’ello? ’Ey!”
Someone was shaking her.
Her dusty eyes slitted open. An elderly man was looking down at her. He looked like something from an old Bible movie: bald and weathered, dressed in gray-and-brown robes that had once been white. In his right hand, he was clutching a staff topped by an ancient, gnarled crook.
“Thought you were dead,” the old-timer rasped. “Was gonna leave you fer the reavers.”
“The…what?” Holly shaded her eyes with spread fingers.
“Reavers.” He spread his arms out. “Spiders, ’bout as big as a horse. They shoot barbed webs at’cha.”
“How do I…get back?”
He cocked his head. “To where?”
She worked her dried, swollen, tongue against the inside of her mouth. “Peter Lee…have to find Peter…have to kill—”
He shook his head. “Ain’t no Peter ’round here.” He turned sideways, encompassing the desert with an expansive wave. “This all there be.” He turned back to her, and she noticed one of his eyes was blind and milky. “Only things that matter here are salt, bugs, and lizards.”
Holly passed out.
She came to in a hide-covered cave, dimly lit by a small, crackling fire. An iron pot hung over a lively clutch of burning logs. The old man was ladling stew, from the center of the pot into a dark wooden bowl.
“You heal fast.” He offered her the bowl along with a spoon. “Probl’y your ’dashi training, uh?
She sat up and took the bowl. “ ‘Dashi?’ ”
He fixed himself a bowl and ate a spoonful of stew. After smacking his lips and voicing a satisfied murmur, he said, “Indashi. Yer tribe, according to ther’ tattoos on yer stranglers. Were you clobbered or somethin’? How can you not remember yer own tribe?”
“Indashi…” She rotated her stranglers (her forearms) back and forth in front of her face. Jagged designs were inked across them—they looked like something a death metal band might want for their album font.
“Ayep,” the old-timer said. “Yer definitely Indashi. Shame you don’t have yer raptor steed with ya. We’d be able to chase some tasty game.”
Holly looked at him for a long moment, trying to process what she’d just heard. Not only was she in the body of a killer, but she also rode raptors? As in dinosaurs?
“What’s your name?” she asked.
The old-timer slurped down some soup. “Mongo. Been livin’ out here for o’er twenty years.” He smacked his lips again. “Try some grubbocks. It don’t taste near so good when it starts to go cold.”
Holly gave her bowl a doubting look. The prospect of eating something called grubbocks didn’t exactly whet her appetite.
She dipped her spoon below the surface of the stew, disturbing a host of suspicious-looking morsels. Some of it was plant matter, but—
“Ra-KAWK!” A fur-faced worm poked up from the soup. It looked around with a cagey gaze, then leapt out of her bowl.
“AAAHHH!” Holly shot to her feet, banging her head against the low ceiling. The pain didn’t register; she was concentrating on the tiny creature that had been lurking in her soup. Somehow, she managed to avoid spilling it—only a little slopped to the floor.
“What’re you doing!” Mongo yelled. He darted a fist out, grabbed the worm-thing, and jammed it in his mouth. As he gulped it down, his eyes narrowed into a pained squint.
“Aaaah!” He wiped his mouth with the back of his wrist. “Don’t go wasting food, ye big ’Dashi! Yer should know better!”
Holly sat. Slowly.
“Does it…does it taste good?”
“Don’t matter,” Mongo said, digging in his stew. “Yer can’t waste good food, even if it tastes like week-old poop.”
“Uh…what do you call those things?” She started spooning through her soup.
“Wormy-squirmies,” Mongo said. “Dern near impossible to kill. Can’t freeze ’em, can’t boil ’em, can’t cut ’em up—only way to do it is by eating ’em; there’s something special in our stomach that dissolves their bodies. Go on,” he nodded at Holly’s bowl. “Try one—they make you feel topsy.”
Holly looked uncertainly at her bowl. She wasn’t sure what topsy meant, but she was pretty sure she got the gist; according to Mongo, eating a worm creature would lift her spirits.
She stared at the creamy yellow liquid for a long moment.
Disbelief gave way to cautious acceptance. What can it hurt?
A fuzzy head poked above the surface. “Ruh-KAWK!”
Then it leapt from her bowl. At the same time Mongo yelled “Grab it!” she slapped it up with an rising palm-swipe. As it arced toward her face she opened wide and—GALUMPH—maowed it down.
She became completely still, fearful that sudden movement might invite catastrophe. As her guts began to fizzle, she held her breath.
“BRRRAAAP!!!” An enormous belch flew from her mouth. Simultaneously, a sense of galvanic vitality crackled through her. Her cells felt charged and jittery, as if she’d downed a fistful of Adderall and chased it with an entire pack of red bulls.
She fixed Mongo with an amazed look. “Oh my God!”
He grinned, exposing cracked, yellowed teeth. “Pretty good, ’uh?”
Holly downed the contents of her bowl in a swift gulp, eating three wormy-squirmies in the space of a second. She shot to her feet and uttered a single word:
Mongo nodded. “Right this way.”
He led her toward the entrance of the cave, then took a left into a tunnel. After a winding series of twists and turns, they arrived at a dimly lit cavern. Its center was occupied by a glowing pool of sludgy muck. The edges—where the muck was shallower and thinner—were brimming with wormy-squirmies.
Holly’s eyes widened in astonishment. “Holy shit,” she breathed. “There’s thousands of them.”
Mongo stepped in front of her. “Now don’t go eatin’ too many; they’re meant to be—”
“Out of the way, old fart!” She shoved him roughly to the side. He nearly went flying—Holly’s arms were the size of a regular man’s legs—but he managed to push against the wall and brake his momentum. The former cheerleader dropped to her knees in front of the pool and began snatching up fistfuls of wormy-squirmies, shoving them into her maw as fast as possible. After the sixth or seventh helping, she wiped his mouth with a hairy wrist, then plunked backward onto her butt.
“Aaaah.” Holly patted her belly, then raised her chin and let out a tremendous belch. For a brief instant, her eyes unfocused and pointed in opposite directions.
“Akanax’s nutsack!” Mongo exclaimed. “Never in my life have I seen someone eat so many squirmies! Shiva’s cunt-hairs; you are in for a—”
Holly snatched a leather coin purse that had been tied to her waist. She undid the draw-string and flipped it upside down. Gold currency spilled to the deck, tinkling loudly against the deck.
Mongo’s eyes widened in shock.
“For your troubles,” Holly grunted. She began stuffing wormy-squirmies into the empty purse. After she’d filled it to the brim, she retied the draw-string.
“How long will these last?” she asked roughly.
Mongo stroked his beard, eyes narrowing in thought. “I ’magine they’ll stay wrigglin’ for a couple a’ years.” His hand dropped away. “You plan on travelin’?”
Holly smirked. “I do. As far as it takes to destroy Peter Lee.”
His puzzlement grew a notch more pronounced. “What’d he ever do to you?”
Holly began striding back through the cave. Mongo followed.
“Long story,” she said curtly.
When Holly reached the mouth of the cave, she sprinted into the sun-baked desert. Her muscle-cabled legs flexed and bulged. Mongo stood at the entrance of the cave, watching her shrink into a far-off speck.
“What a weirdo,” he muttered, shaking his head.
“First one a’sides me that likes wormy-squirmies—Gol’dern!”