The world was spinning, his heart beating out a panicked rhythm. He wanted to run, but his legs felt like they were sunk in something dense and bitterly cold. Then he remembered it was too late—they had already taken him.
Rex feebly moved his hands, clawing at the wall that pressed against him. Then the world tilted again, and he slowly realized that the hard expanse was the ground. He was lying flat and facedown. His lungs labored against some terrible weight as if a huge, unconscious body lay on top of him.
And he was blind.
He coughed, tasting salt and blood in his mouth. Breathing wasn’t easy; whatever his kidnappers had used to knock him out still filled his head.
Rex tried to force open his eyes, but some sort of muck clung to his face. He also felt it smeared across his chest and between his fingers. Viscous, warm strands of the stuff tugged at his lips when they parted to let out a groan, as if he’d been dropped in a ditch filled with fresh entrails from a slaughterhouse.
Images of spiders filled his mind, and Rex remembered the old darkling at Constanza’s spitting steaming mucus as it died. His heart began to pound again, panic welling up and his hands clawing blindly. But real tarantulas didn’t shoot webs, he reminded himself.
He pulled one heavy hand toward his face and felt it drag across fine sand. Turning his head seemed impossible—as if it were trapped in a vise—but he forced his fingers to scrape at one side of his face until his right eye managed to open a slit.
Rex glimpsed blue light and for the first time noticed the silence. Only his own heartbeat pounded in his ears. He must have been unconscious for hours; the blue time was here.
A glimmer of hope passed through him. His kidnappers’ understanding of the secret hour couldn’t be perfect. They had never read midnighter lore, only taken orders from their “spooks” blindly, without real comprehension. Maybe they didn’t realize that Rex would still be awake while they were frozen. Maybe they’d made a mistake.
But he had to get moving, had to stand up. The blue time might be just beginning or almost over. And this sticky stuff all over him probably wasn’t a good sign.
Rex pawed at his face with two hands, tearing at the clinging muck until he could open both eyes. Blue desert floor filled his view through blurred vision; he still couldn’t turn his head. He tried to push himself up, but his chest only rose a few inches from the ground before sinking back again. Scrambling to turn over, he tore with his fingers at the dirt, but the vast weight atop him pressed him firmly against the ground, almost paralyzed, breathless with the effort of struggling. He couldn’t feel his legs at all.
What was on top of him?
With his face squashed against the dirt, Rex tasted salt. This was the flats, he realized. He’d been dumped far out in the desert, miles from humanity. Even if midnight had only just fallen, they would be here soon.
Then he heard something, a muffled cry.
He listened, and distant sounds reached him from every direction, shrill and inhuman. He weakly clawed at his ears to scrape them clean.
And suddenly the noise became deafening. The silence had only been because of the muck in his ears.
They were already here, all around him.
Rex felt his breath catch in fear and reached for Glorification around his neck. But the links of steel were gone, along with his jacket and shirt. He felt nothing against his skin except the clinging slime and the oppressive weight that pressed him down against the salt.
Something black and glistening slithered into view.
A small face, inches from his, looked up at Rex. A crawling slither, its soulless jet eyes peering at him curiously.
As his mind struggled to come up with a tridecalogism, he wondered what a slither strike to the eyeball would feel like.
“Decompression,” he croaked.
An invisible fist struck his stomach, forcing the scant air from his lungs, as if the desert had bucked angrily under him.
The slither wriggled out of sight. Buoyed by this victory, Rex pushed against the desert floor again.
Suddenly the weight lifted from him, his whole body rising into the air. Rex’s arms flailed weakly and whatever carried him staggered, the blue horizon tilting.
Through his blurred vision he glimpsed the shapes of spiders and worms, giant snakes and hunting cats, and things he didn’t recognize, nightmarish beasts that mixed reptile and mammal and bird of prey. More darklings than he’d ever imagined, weathered and ancient. The ground beneath him seethed with slithers, writhing among the ankles of three frozen humans. Rex recognized Angie’s motionless face, Ernesto Grayfoot with his camera.
A human sound came through the darkling chatter, like a child sobbing.
He forced his eyes to focus and saw a young girl among the dark shapes. She lay huddled on the ground, naked, a thin, strangled noise coming from her.
Another victim out here in the desert.
But Rex had no metal, no weapons of any kind, not even clothes, nothing but words to fight with. He pulled a painful breath into his lungs.
Another blow pummeled him, and he staggered backward, wobbling too high off the ground, like an amateur on stilts. But balance returned, and he finally saw the great wings gathering the air on either side of him, pulling him upright. A glistening, viscous slime still clung to them.
He let his eyes close, finally understanding. Who the girl was; what he had become.
“Disappearance,” he whispered.
The sharp and awesome pain struck again, as though he were vomiting up something spiked and huge. The thirteen-letter words were poison in his mouth, of course. Even thinking them made his mind split in half, tearing at the part of his brain that still could not believe what had happened, the part that was still human.
It was too late to run, too late to fight.
Rex was one of them now.