Holly awoke in a pool of mud.
She rose to her feet, brushing gooey silt off her arms and her belly. Ugh. She flicked her fingers, ridding them of muck. Gross. Whoever spiked my punch is going to pay with their motherfucking—
Then she stumbled back, shooting her arms reflexively behind her, searching for something to brace her weight against.
Stormed-soaked desert stretched out in every direction. Off in the distance, austere mountains scored the horizon.
Her widened eyes darted from puddle to puddle. When she realized what was happening, they widened even further.
The water was disappearing. The thirsty ground was drinking it in.
Her gaze dropped. The puddle 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 seen in the bleed between worlds. When she took a step back, what she saw in the water made her flinch.
The barbarian’s movements 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?
After a minute she began clenching her fists—slow and tentative at first, then with increasing vigor, watching the striated muscles bulge from her forearms.
Holy shit…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 fucking head off.
Four days later, all thoughts of vengeance had fled from her mind.
The sun ravaged her with unrelenting light. Indifferent shimmer suffused the air, coating everything in suffocating haze. With each step, fatigue and numbness rolled through her body.
She 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 on.
She collapsed to her knees and fell onto her side. A cloud of dust puffed up from the ground, masking Holly in a veil of particulate.
Her eyes slid shut.
“ ’ello? ”
Her dust-caked eyes slitted open.
An elderly man was standing over 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 the flat of her hand.
“Reavers.” He spread his arms out. “Spiders. 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 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 to the side, encompassing the desert with an expansive wave. “This all there be.” She saw his left eye was blind and milky. “Only things ’round here are salt, bugs, and lizards.”
Holly passed out.
She came to in a hide-covered cave, dimly lit by a crackling fire, an iron pot hanging above it. 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 fixed himself some stew. “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 metal band would choose for their crazy-ass album font.
“Ayep.” He gave her tatts a knowing nod. “Definitely ’dashi. Shame you don’t have yer velociraptor mount—we’d be able to chase us some tasty game.”
Holly stared at him, trying to process what he’d just said.
Velociraptors? As in dinosaurs?
“What’s your name?”
He slurped down a spoonful of stew. “Mongo. Been livin’ out here fer twenny-some years.” He smacked his lips. “Try some grubbocks. Don’t taste nearly as good when you it starts to go cold.”
She inspected her bowl with a dubious eye. The idea 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 side to side with a cagey glance. Before she could scream, it leapt from her bowl.
“AAAHHH!” Holly shot to her feet, banging her head against the low-sloped ceiling. She managed to avoid spilling her soup; only a little slopped to the floor.
“What’re you doing?” Mongo yelled. 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 fixed Holly with a reproachful glare. “Don’t go wasting food, ye big ’Dashi! Yer should know better!”
Holly sat. Slowly. “Does it…how does it taste?”
“Don’t matter,” Mongo said, digging in his stew with fresh zeal. “Yer can’t waste good food, even if it smells like week-old poop.”
“Uh…what do you call those…those creatures?”
“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. “They’ll make you feel topsy.”
Holly had never heard that word before—topsy—but she got the gist; eating a worm-thing would lift her spirits. She stared at her bowl for a long moment before a fuzzy head poked up from the liquid.
“Ruh-KAWK!” It leapt out of her stew.
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—
—maowed it down. She became completely still, scared that undue movement would invite gastronomic catastrophe.
A few seconds later, an enormous belch flew from her mouth and 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 red bulls.
She laid a hand on her heart. “Oh my God!” she exclaimed.
Mongo grinned, exposing cracked, yellowed teeth. “Pretty good, ’uh?”
Holly downed the rest of her bowl, eating several wormy-squirmies in less than a second. She jumped to her feet and uttered a single word.
Mongo nodded. “Right this way.”
He led her down a tunnel. After a winding series of twists and turns, they arrived at a cavernous cave-chamber. Its center housed a glowing pool of muck. The edges were brimming with wormy-squirmies.
“Holy shit,” Holly murmured.
Mongo stepped in front of her. “Now don’t go eatin’ too many. They’re meant to be—”
“Out of the way!” She shoved him roughly to the side and dropped to her knees, snatching up wormies and gulping them down. After her sixth or seventh fistful, she wiped her mouth with a hairy wrist, then plunked backward onto her butt.
“Aaaah.” She patted her belly and belched again. 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 that many squirmies! Shiva’s cunt-hairs; you are in for a—”
Holly grabbed 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 drawstring and secured it to her belt. “How long will they last?”
Mongo stopped gathering coins. “They’ll wriggle for a couple years, mebbe.”
Holly nodded curtly and strode back through the cave. Mongo followed. When she reached the entrance, she sprinted out into the sun-baked desert.
“Wotta weirdo,” Mongo shook his head. “First one a’sides me that likes the taste of squirmies—gol’dern!”