Joe wakes dreaming of a woman he can’t remember, and then she walks into his life - as the girl the boss of the gang is sleeping with. And she’s a Cassandra. Mad as hell and accurate as anything.
Turns out, there’s some monsters.
She put him out like the burnin’ end of a midnight cigarette
She broke his heart he spent his whole life tryin’ to forget
“Again…” Caecelia murmured, distressed, and then, triumphant, “South!”
Her finger landed on the map, pointing to the tail end of a long gorge, a place still virtually inaccessible by humans. Not that they wouldn’t try, called by the siren call of the monsters, try and die in droves if the monsters were note stopped.
"How many," the boss asked urgently, and Caecelia's face screwed up in pained concentration. "Many?" she offered after a moment, her voice uncertain. She looked down at her fingers as if they were foreign objects, bit one of them thoughtfully, chewing on the knuckle. The boss watched her implacably, unbothered by this idiot behavior. "Five little," she offered, "and three big. Beeeg." Her hands described vague gestures in the air, and Joe wondered if she understood what it was she was describing.
"You heard the girl," the boss said, barking the order out at the camp. "Saddle up; we're heading out."
It took less than a half hour to pack their camp onto their bikes; in the hubbub, no one but Joe heard Caecelia whisper, horror in her voice as she turned her blank eyes to him, "...and six hostages..."
She belonged to the boss, every bit as much as his bike and his blades did, so Joe didn't take her in his arms and comfort her. Instead, he carefully folded up the map and handed it to her, silently. There were no words for the realization in h There was nothing to say, so he kitted up, threw the last of his gear on the back of his hog, and glanced back only long enough to be sure she'd gotten on the back of the boss's bike.
They ripped through the small towns between them and the gorge, leaving consternation and fear in their wake, the Good People staring at their backs and making up stories about hoodlums and gang wars. The road ran out a half-mile from their location; they parked there and fell into position.
Darvis, Mannie, and Yender secured the perimeter, such as it was. Arvis and Lee took a quick scout of their routes down, picking the three paths least likely to be visible from their target.
The presence of the monsters was unmistakable. Even when they were not actively calling people to them, they emitted an oppressive field. Humans found it hard to think, hard to breathe, hard to concentrate when they were in the vicinity of the monsters. Soldiers found themselves more on edge, their senses preternaturally aware, their reflexes quicker, their tempers sharper.
They were there all right, the cloud of jumpy twitchiness getting stronger as they got further into the gorge. Even Caecelia seemed more jittery, humming tunelessly to herself as she rode the boss piggyback down the gorge wall.
Joe had been uncertain of the wisdom of bringing the delicate little thistledown woman along on a combat mission, but the boss had carried her down the edge with him as if it were nothing (and she certainly couldn't weigh enough to slow a giant like him down), and who was Joe to say anything? She was a soldier, born different like all of them. Even a 90-pound blind soldier could hold their own in a fight.
They'd reached the gorge floor but hadn't yet rounded the bend that would bring them to their target when they heard the scream, high-pitched and terrified, a sound torn out of a throat that had wanted to be brave. It hung in the air for a moment like fireworks, bright and pungent, and was quickly followed by another, and another, until they were separated only by the space of quick indrawn gasps of breath.
Caecelia smiled, a twisted unpleasant little face, and slid from the boss' back, saying nothing. The team reached battle formation without a conscious thought, and they moved the fifty feet around the bend to the beat of the screams.
You called them monsters, even (especially) in the privacy of your own mind. It had been the first thing his mentor had taught him, back in his early teens. You never called them by the name they called themselves, Children of the First, Endraae Osarae, nor by the names folklore gave them - Fair Folk, Beautiful People, demons, elves, High Ones. Names brought with them preconceptions, and those preconceptions could get you killed.
They were the monsters, and you were the soldiers. And never, ever, ever, not even in the dark recesses of midnight, did you even think about the fact that the blood that made you a soldier came from them, that the creatures you beheaded could very well be your half-siblings, your parents, your ancestors...
...your children, his voice added helpfully.
...or your children, though such things were forbidden. And, even more than that killing thought, you never tricked yourself into thinking they were human.
The ones Caecelia had called "little;" those were the ones who, at first glance, looked human. Breathtakingly beautiful or nauseatingly ugly, their features, their general shapes, were usually humanoid. Some could pass even a close inspection (and some, the half-breeds, could have lived their whole lives as humans without raising an eyebrow) - but in the things they did, they were no less monsters than the "big" ones.
Beeeg. There were two dragons, one a juvenile, no bigger than a horse, the other three times that size, with leathery skin mottled in hues of blue and grey, and something that looked like the nightmare of a saber-toothed tiger, seven feet tall at the shoulder with bone armour plates covering its shoulders and spine.
They had tethered a teenaged boy to a wide outcropping of rock for the dragons, and he was still screaming, terror having overcome his pride. The younger dragon was, catlike, playing with its food, wounding the boy over and over again, letting him go, just to pounce and rend again.
Caecelia's smile grew colder. "Guess that makes me the white knight," she murmured, so softly Joe wasn't sure anyone had heard her but him. Then she was gone, darting off along the rocks into a crack in the rocks, and Joe turned his attention back to the fight to come.
The gang’s arrival caught the monsters by surprise, but the bends of the gorge left them a long hundred feet of visibility before they could strike. The younger of the dragons paid them no heed, busy still playing with its food, but the older, the beeg monster, twisted agilely and began climbing the gorge wall. Like some sort of oversized gecko, it moved towards them along the wall, its unblinking eyes glaring at them with undisguisable malice.
The – they were not elves – the smaller monsters simply waited, or continued what they had been doing, as the gang made its way steadily down the gorge. Spring would find this area hip-deep in water, but the weather had gone dry, and so had the river; the going was rocky but easy enough.
Were they deafened, blinded, by their own rank aura and the screams of their victims, Joe wondered, or simply that arrogant? Humans of course, humans couldn’t stand in a fight against these things, but soldiers were born to kill monsters.
Or cursed such by the gods, suggested his conscience, but then the dragons were upon them, and the voices fell silent.
It wasn’t that all soldiers were born knowing how to fight – even if the others did share Joe’s disturbing memories of long-past fights, it had given him no special knowledge of fighting and, presumably, would give them equally nothing – but that the tainted blood in them brought them forth wanting to fight, needing to fight, from childhood. By the time they found the gang (or another like it; they had crossed paths with at least two other warbands in their time, and a couple of gangs they weren’t sure of), violent tendencies had usually garnered soldiers some instruction by experience with fighting.
What they didn’t come with, their mentor taught them. Those that didn’t learn quickly usually didn’t survive long enough to be a problem, but very few were slow learners.
Today, even the youngest fell into battle as if they had been doing this for centuries (and maybe they had, Joe thought darkly, before thought became a vestigial and ignored function). The ancient enemy was in front of them; they killed it.
The dragon attacked Aes, and seemed surprised to find that the wiry, skinny man fought back, what’s more, fought back with weapons that could hurt the monster, his dull-steel-colored weapon peeling skin off the thing like a crazy Ginsu commercial, although steel could not cut a monster. It roared in miserable anger, its breath so foul and rotten that a spark would probably ignite it, and began attacking in earnest, biting the weapon causing it so much distress and the hand and arm attached, only to roar in pain as the thing burned the inside of its mouth.
Aes grimaced, bracing himself - even leather and steel could only protect against so much of the dragon’s bite and its acidic spittle – while the boss and Arvis attacked the thing from both sides, cutting into its flanks, sharp thorns of bone weapons finding the places under the armour plates where the creature was the most vulnerable.
But Joe and the others kept moving, and that fight was soon behind them. Ahead of them, the monsters had finally noticed what it was that came to attack and were preparing for battle – all but one, a beautiful creature with blue-white hair and lips and perfect white skin, looking as if she had just faded gently into an asphyxiated death. She, with the steel-and-stone coronet on her head, began moving methodically among the humans.
The first of their fighters was in front of Joe, swinging a weapon bigger than his twisted body, and Joe was attacking him. The little monster was fiercely strong, and the blade of the giant axe sharp with poison, its teeth even sharper, buts its skin was as thin as a human’s, and its neck snapped and cut through like a dry twig.
Then there was simply fighting. The monsters attacked, and Joe killed them, fighting with a steady rhythm. The noises of the battle faded from his hearing, replaced by a dull thudding, like war drums out of some dim memory.
He stopped when he found himself standing at the wall of the canyon, with no enemies in front of him. Blood flowed from a series of deep rips on his legs and chest, rips that went through his armour and nearly to the bone, and a smell and feeling like seared flesh seemed to be coming from his left temple. At his feet, the drowned woman – their tribal queen – lay in pieces, her limbs ripped from her body, her neck broken. He looked down at his hands curiously, only to find them, too, burned - scorched and blackened, the skin peeling away in places.
He looked around slowly as his hearing returned. The monsters lay dead, all of them, no, all but one. A pretty blonde girl, normal-enough looking to pass for human, knelt at Jekyll’s feet, her arms both broken and hanging at funny angles. Looking past them, Joe saw the younger dragon, sprawled dead and eviscerated on the ground by its feeding rock. Caecelia, covered in layers of dragon gore, was sitting on the rock by the wounded boy, speaking softly to him.