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 behind her, reflexively 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. When she realized what was happening, they widened to the size of full-course dinner plates.
The water was…it 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 muscle 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 head off.
Four days later, all thoughts of vengeance had vanished from her mind.
The sun ravaged her with unrelenting light. Indifferent shimmer suffused the air, coating everything in suffocating haze. With every step, fatigue and numbness rolled through her body.
She kept her gaze fixed on the mountains. They’ll…have…water. She wasn’t certain, but she had to believe. Otherwise, she had no reason to continue on.
She collapsed to her knees…fell onto her side. A cloud of dust puffed up from the ground, masking her in a veil of gritty particulate.
Holly’s 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 sideways, encompassing the desert with an expansive wave. “This all there be.” When he turned back, she saw that 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 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 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 might 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 could chase us down some tasty game.”
Holly stared at him, trying to process what he’d just said.
Velociraptors? As in dinosaurs?
“What’s your name?” she asked.
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 so good when they start 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 gaze. 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 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 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. “How does it…how does it taste?”
“Don’t matter,” Mongo said, digging into 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—topsy—but she got the gist; eating a worm-thing would lift her spirits. She stared at her bowl for a long moment before another fuzzy head poked up from the liquid.
“Ruh-KAWK!” It leapt out of her stew, just like the last one.
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 any undue movement would invite gastronomic catastrophe. A moment 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 taken an Adderall and chased it with red bulls.
She laid a hand on her heart. “Oh my God. Oh my God!”
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 with rapacious intensity:
Mongo nodded. “Right this way.”
He led her down a tunnel. After a winding series of twists and turns, they made their way into a cavernous 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 up wormies and gulping them down. After her sixth or 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 that was tied 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 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 dozen 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!”