I lifted the shotgun to my shoulder and
trotted toward Smoky, who was still sniffing the pieces of shattered door
glass. Smoke rose from his nostrils with each exhalation.
I am so about to get myself
barbecued, I thought. I wish Cooper was here; he'd know exactly what to
Tears welled up in my eyes. Where was he?
Was he okay? If he'd been sucked into that black pit of nightmares I'd seen ...
damn it, I should have insisted we wait another day to summon the rain. We
never should have gone out that night.
I could have been curled up on the couch
with Cooper, watching an old movie with little terrier-sized Smoky on his lap
and my ferret on my lap, eating popcorn and laughing and smiling and kissing
instead of being wet and scared and alone and not knowing what the hell
I was doing in this stinking parking garage.
I was about a dozen yards from Smoky. Close
enough for a clean, strong hit with the shotgun, although I didn't want to do
that. In the yellow lights of the garage, he was truly frightening: part dog,
part Asian dragon, part centipede, all wrong. Green slime caked the edges of
his lips -- blood, poison, or both? His eyes, I realized, were faceted like an
insect's. Would he recognize me through his new eyes, or would I look as
monstrous to him as he did to me?
I set the shotgun muzzle down and leaned the
stock against my damp leg so it would be close at hand. While Smoky had never
been able to speak to anyone but Cooper, I hoped to get some kind of friendly
response, and figured pointing a firearm at him wasn't the best tactic.
I whistled at him. "Smoky! Smoky,
whatcha looking at there, buddy?"
His head jerked up from the smashed glass
and he stared at me. His lips drew back from his daggerlike teeth in a snarl.
Green poison dripped from the tips. A growl like an anvil dragging across
concrete rolled out of his throat.
Not the response I'd been hoping for.
"Smoky, don't be like that. It's me,
Jessie. You know me, I'm your friend. I fed you just this morning.
Cooper's missing, and I need your help if we're gonna get him back."
I slowly reached into my pocket, hoping I
had a rubber band or hair tie in there, but could only find a loose thread from
the stitching. It would have to do. I broke it off, and began to chant old
words for "bind".
At the first weak touch of my magic, Smoky
lunged at me, fast as a striking cobra.
No time to finish. I snatched up the
shotgun, swung the muzzle up toward Smoky and squeezed the trigger. It blasted
into his open mouth.
Smoky roared and jerked back, shaking his
head like a dog with a wasp-stung nose. I pumped the gun, aimed for his eye and
Smoky bucked, and I didn't see his tail
flailing toward me until it was too late. The tail slammed into my left
shoulder, knocking me off my feet and the shotgun out of my hands.
I tumbled across the concrete and landed
backfirst against the cinderblock wall, knocking my head painfully. I lay
there, dazed, expecting to feel Smoky's hot breath on my skin as his jaws
clamped down on my prone body --
-- but instead I heard glass breaking. I
turned my head in time to see Smoky's tail disappearing through what was left
of the doors to the Riffe Center. The shotgun lay ten yards away from me.
"Oh great," I moaned, awkwardly
sitting up. I'd banged up my knees and elbows and hands pretty well during my
tumble. "This is going well."
At least you're not barbecue, I
reminded myself. Or giblet surprise.
I scratched an itch on my left forearm, and
my hand came away sticky with blood. Smoky's tail had torn my tee shirt and
opened a three-inch gash in my shoulder. I couldn't see anything but blood in
I tried to raise my left arm, and was
answered with a bright blue spike of pain from the muscles and joint. It even
hurt to make a fist. I had to take care of the arm before I could even think
about tracking down Smoky.
Bracing myself against the wall with my good
arm, I climbed to my feet. There was a wriggling movement on the floor near the
broken glass. I retrieved the shotgun and slowly approached it.
Smoky's green blood had spattered on the
floor, and a strange moss was growing from it. As I watched, the moss sprouted
thorny tendrils that wiggled out across the concrete like earthworms seeking
dirt. Or tentacles seeking meat.
I stepped back out of tendril reach. You
don't know what that is; don't even think about touching it,
I thought. This ain't biology class; don't experiment.
But if a few drops of blood produced this
... he was bound to bleed a lot more if I had to kill him. Would the strange flora die with him, or would it survive him?