Holly awoke in a pool of mud.
She rose to her feet and brushed gooey silt off her arms and belly. Ugh. She flicked her fingers, ridding them of muck. Gross. Whoever dosed me is gonna pay with their motherfucking—
Then she stumbled back, hands searching for something to brace against.
She was not in Atherton anymore.
Stormed-soaked desert stretched before her. Off in the distance, austere mountains scored the horizon.
Her eyes darted from puddle to puddle. The water…it was disappearing. The thirsty ground was drinking it in.
Her gaze dropped. The puddle to her front shrank from a six-foot pond into a small, muddy pane. Its surface shone with a giant barbarian, the same one she’d seen in the bleed between worlds. When she lifted her arm, 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?
She clenched her fists. Slow and tentatively, then with increasing vigor. Striated muscles bulged from her forearms. An ancient part of her affirmed this was real—this wasn’t a dream. And strangely enough, she was ready to embrace it.
Fate. Duty. Destiny.
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.
Four days later, all thoughts of vengeance had fled her mind.
The sun ravaged her with unrelenting light. Indifferent shimmer suffused the air, coating everything she saw in a 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 wasn’t sure, but she had to believe. Otherwise, she had no reason to continue on.
She collapsed to her knees, then fell to her side. A cloud of dust puffed up from the ground, masking her body in gritty particulate.
Holly’s eyes slid shut.
“ ’ello? ”
Her eyes slitted open.
An elderly man was standing above her. He resembled an actor from an old Bible movie: bald and weathered, dressed in gray-brown robes that had once been white. He held a withered staff, topped by a gnarled, ancient crook.
“Thought you were dead,” he 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. “Spiders. Bigger ’n a horse. Shoot barbed webs at’cha.”
“How do I…return?”
He cocked his head. “To where?”
She worked her tongue against her gummy cheeks. “Peter Lee…have to find Peter…have to kill—”
“Ain’t no ‘Peter’ ’round here.” He turned sideways, encompassing the desert with an expansive wave. “This all there be.” When he turned back, she saw his left eye was blind and milky. “Only things ’ere are salt, bugs, and lizzerds.”
Holly passed out.
She came to in a hide-covered cave, dimly lit by a small fire, an iron pot hanging above its center. The old man ladled stew from the pot into a wooden bowl.
“Fast healer.” 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 a bowl of stew. “Indashi—yer tribe, according to ther’ tattoos on yer stranglers. Were you clobbered on the noggin? How can you forget yer own friggin’ tribe?”
“Indashi…” She studied her “stranglers” (her forearms). Jagged designs were inked across them—like something a metal band would use for its badass album font.
“Ayep.” He gave her tatts a knowing nod. “Definitely ’dashi. Shame yer missing yer battle velociraptor—we could chase us down some tasty game.”
Holly stared at him, trying to process what he’d just said. Velociraptor? As in dinosaur?
“What’s your name?” she asked.
He slurped his stew. “Mongo.” He smacked his lips. “Try some grubbocks. Don’t taste good if you let ’em go cold.”
She inspected her bowl with a dubious eye. The idea of eating something called grubbocks didn’t exactly whet her appetite. She stirred 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 surface, looking side to side with a cagey gaze. Before she could scream, it leapt from her bowl.
“AAAHHH!” Holly shot to her feet, banging her head on the low-sloped ceiling. She managed to avoid spilling her soup; only a little slopped to the floor.
“What’re ya’ 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 good! Dern good!” He gave Holly a reproachful glare. “Don’t go wasting food, ye big ’Dashi! Yer should know better!”
Holly sat. Slowly. “How does it…how does it taste?”
“Don’t matter.” Mongo dug 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. “Go on,” he nodded at her bowl. “You’ll feel topsy.”
She’d never heard that word—topsy—but she got the gist; eating a worm-thing would lift her spirits. She stared dumbly at her bowl for nearly a minute. Another 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. As it arced toward her face, she opened wide and—
—maowed it down. She became completely still, afraid that undue movement would invite gastronomic catastrophe. A moment later, an enormous belch flew from her mouth. Her cells felt charged and jittery, as if she’d taken an Adderall and chased it with red bull.
She laid a hand on her heart. “Oh my God. Oh my God!”
Mongo grinned, exposing cracked, yellowed teeth. “Good, ’uh?”
Holly downed her bowl, eating several wormy-squirmies in the space of a second. She jumped to her feet and uttered a single word:
Mongo nodded. “Right this way.”
He got up and led her down a tunnel. After a winding series of twists and turns, they entered a cavernous, echoey 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, you old fart!” She shoved him roughly to the side and dropped to her knees, snatching wormies and gulping them down. After her seventh fistful, she wiped her mouth with a hairy wrist, then plunked back 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 affixed to her waist. She undid the drawstring and flipped it upside down. Gold currency spilled to the deck, tinkling loudly as it hit the ground. Mongo’s eyes widened with greed.
“For your troubles,” Holly grunted, stuffing squirmies into her purse. She filled it to the brim, then tied the drawstring and re-secured it to her belt. “How long will they last?”
Mongo stopped and pondered the ceiling. “They’ll wriggle for a dozen years…mebbe.”
She nodded curtly and strode back through the cave. Mongo followed wordlessly behind. 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!”