Holly awoke in a pool of mud.
She rose to her feet and brushed gooey silt off her arms, then her belly. Ugh. She shook her hands 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, both arms shooting behind her, reflexively reaching for a wall to brace against. A vast expanse of storm-soaked desert stretched out before her in every direction, dotted by a patchwork of fresh puddles. Off in the distance, austere mountains scored the horizon.
Her widened eyes darted from puddle to puddles. When she realized what was happening, they widened a little further.
The water…it was disappearing. The thirsty ground was drinking it in.
Her eyes dropped to her feet. The puddle directly to her front was shrinking from a six-foot pond into a small, muddy pane. Its rippling surface shone with a giant barbarian, the same one she’d spotted in the bleed between worlds. When she took a step back, what she saw in the water made her flinch.
The barbarian’s movements had mirrored hers.
Oh my God…what did…that stuff in my eyes…did it…
She gaped down at her upturned palms.
What have I become?
She began clenching her fists—slow and tentative at first, then with increasing vigor, watching the striated muscles bulge from her forearms.
Holy shit, she thought, I am YOKED.
An evil smile split her lips. She scanned the horizon with a flinty gaze.
I’m coming for you, Peter. I’m gonna rip your head off.
After four days in the burning desert, all thoughts of Peter had vanished from her mind.
The sun had ravaged her body with its unrelenting light. Indifferent shimmer suffused the air, smothering everything in a suffocating haze. With each step, fatigue and numbness radiated up through her torso.
Holly kept her gaze fixed on the mountains. They’ll…have…water. She didn’t know for sure, but she had to believe. Otherwise, she had no reason to continue onward.
She collapsed to her knees and fell onto her side. A cloud of dust puffed up from the ground, masking the cheerleader in a veil of particulate.
Her eyes slid shut.
“ ’ello? ”
Her dust-caked 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-brown robes that had once been white. In his right hand, he was clutching a staff topped by a gnarled, ancient crook.
“Thought you were dead,” the old-timer rasped. “Was gonna leave you fer the reavers.”
“The…what?” She shaded her eyes with a spread-fingered hand.
“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 swollen tongue against her gummy cheeks. “Peter Lee…have to find Peter…have to kill—”
He shook his head. “Ain’t no Peter ’round here.” He turned sideways, gesturing at the desert with an expansive wave. “This all there be.” He turned back to her. She noticed one of his eyes was blind and milky. “Only things that matter ’round here are salt, bugs, and lizards.”
Then she passed out.
Holly came to in a hide-covered cave, dimly lit by a small, crackling fire. An iron pot hung above its center. The old man ladled stew from 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 accepted the bowl. “ ‘Dashi?’ ”
He looked back at the pot as he fixed himself a bowl. “Indashi. Yer tribe, according to ther’ tattoos on yer stranglers. Were you clobbered on the noggin? How can you not remember yer own tribe?”
“Indashi…” She looked down at her “stranglers” (her forearms). Jagged designs were inked across them—like something a death metal band might choose for a kick-ass album font.
“Ayep.” The old-timer gave her tats a knowing nod. “Yer definitely ’dashi. Shame you don’t have yer raptor steed handy—we’d be able to chase us down some tasty game.”
Holly stared at him, trying to process what he’d just said.
Raptors? As in dinosaurs?
“What’s your name?” she asked eventually.
He slurped down a spoonful of stew. “Mongo. Been livin’ out here for o’er twenty years.” He smacked his lips. “Try some grubbocks. It don’t taste good when you let it get cold.”
Holly inspected her bowl with a suspicious eye. 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 liquid, looking around with a cagey gaze. Before she could scream, it leapt out of her bowl.
“AAAHHH!” Holly shot to her feet, banging her head against the low-sloped ceiling. Somehow, she managed to avoid spilling her soup—only a little slopped to the floor.
“What’re you doing?” Mongo yelled, outraged. He snatched the worm-thing off the ground and jammed it in his mouth. As he gulped it down, his eyes narrowed into a pained squint. “Aah…that’s tasty! Dern tasty!” He wiped his mouth with the back of his wrist and fixed Holly with a reproachful glare. “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 into his stew. “Yer can’t waste good food, even if it smells like week-old poop.”
“Uh…what do you call those…those creatures?” She tentatively examined her creature-infested soup.
“Wormy-squirmies,” Mongo said. “Can’t freeze ’em, boil ’em, or cut ’em up. Only way to kill ’em is by eatin’ ’em. There’s somethin’ in our stomach that breaks ’em down. Go on,” he nodded at her bowl. “Try one—they’ll make you feel topsy.”
Holly had never heard that word—topsy—but she was pretty sure she got the gist; eating a worm creature would lift her spirits. She stared at her bowl for a long moment.
Then: 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 upward with a rising palm-swipe. As it arced toward her face she opened wide and—GALUMPH—maowed it down. She became completely still, afraid that undue movement would invite catastrophe.
A few seconds later: “BRRRAAAP!!!”
An enormous belch flew from her mouth. Simultaneously, galvanic vitality crackled through her body. 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 laid a spread-fingered hand onto her heart. “Oh my God!” she exclaimed.
Mongo grinned, exposing cracked, yellowed teeth. “Pretty good, ’uh?”
Holly downed her bowl in a swift gulp, eating several 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 down a tunnel, took a left, then a right. After a winding series of twists and turns, they arrived at a cavernous area. Its center housed a glowing pool of sludgy muck. The edges were brimming with wormy-squirmies.
“Holy shit,” Holly breathed. “There must be 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, you old fart!” She shoved him roughly to the side and dropped to her knees, snatching up wormy-squirmies and shoving them down her throat. After her sixth or seventh fistful, she wiped her mouth with a hairy wrist, then plunked backward onto her butt.
“Aaaah.” Holly patted her belly and let out a tremendous belch. For a brief instant, her eyes unfocused and pointed in opposite directions.
“Ak-nax’s nutsack!” Mongo exclaimed. “I ain’t never seen a man eat so many gol’dern squirmies! Shiva’s cunt-hairs; you are in for a—”
Holly snatched a leather coin purse that was tied to her waist. She undid the draw-string and flipped it upside down. Gold currency spilled to the deck, tinkling loudly as it hit the rocky ground. Mongo’s eyes widened in shock, then narrowed with greed.
“For your troubles,” Holly grunted, 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. “The wormy-squirmies, I mean.”
Mongo stopped gathering coins and stroked his beard. He looked up at the ceiling, searching the rock with a speculative gaze. “ ’magine they’ll wriggle for a couple a’ years…mebbe.”
Holly responded with a curt nod and strode back through the cave. Mongo followed. When she reached the entrance, she sprinted out into the sun-baked desert.
“What a weirdo,” Mongo muttered, shaking his head. “First one a’sides me that likes wormy-squirmies—Gol’dern!”