“Come on! We’ve got to run!”
Melissa shook her head and tore away from him. Her eyes shone with the terrible clarity they always had in the blue time; freed from the tumultuous mind noise of humanity, she could be fearless, imperiously bold.
Rex sighed. She could also be a pain in the ass.
“I am so going to rip this woman,” she said, pushing past him and into the master bedroom.
He followed, coming to a halt at the door. The two normals were frozen on either side of the clutter of tiles, the man kneeling, the woman standing. The man’s face was obscured by a camera pointed at the floor. Rex noticed that his watch was set exactly to Bixby midnight and that its face was marked with the tiny glittering eyes of jewels.
“Well, what do you know?” Rex said. “He stalks darklings as well as Jessica.”
“She’s the one that matters,” Melissa said.
The motionless woman was tall and fair, dressed in business clothes. Midnight had caught her expression: awe and fear mixed with expectation. All the tiles were facedown on the floor, ready to be turned over and arranged into messages.
Rex shook his head, still unable to wrap his mind around it. How could a darkling communicate using hated midnighter symbols? And where had these people hidden themselves for fifty years?
Melissa stood before the woman, reaching out her hands.
“There’s no time!” Rex shouted. “The desert’s only half a mile away. Whatever’s coming will be here soon!”
“She’s the smart one, Rex. You should have felt her mind. She knows what’s going on.”
“What’s going on is we’re about to get overrun by darklings!”
“Get ready, then. I’ll be downstairs in five.”
Rex flinched. Why didn’t anyone ever listen to him? Especially at times like this, when it really mattered. However expensive it looked, this house was a darkling place. Not for humans. He could see that; Melissa couldn’t.
He noticed that the sliding glass door of the balcony was now open.
“Make it three,” Rex said coldly, and ran downstairs.
He burst through the front door and ran to the car, not bothering to check the skies. They had a few minutes, anyway. Even Jonathan Martinez couldn’t have gotten here this fast.
Perversely, he hoped that something big was coming. The oldest ones lived in the deep desert and would take longer to get here. And having to face something really scary might convince Melissa to listen to him next time.
Of course, if it did turn out to be just some second-string darkling and a few slithers, Rex wasn’t going to complain.
He reached into the backseat and pulled out his duffel bag. It was depressingly light; they hadn’t brought any serious metal tonight, thinking they’d be facing a human threat and not some darkling house party.
Rex cursed. The awesome power of the flame-bringer had made him overconfident.
The duffel bag’s zipper caught in his nervous fingers, but he managed to yank it open. A big plastic flashlight, useless without Jessica to spark it up. A ball-peen hammer called Arachnophobia. A bag of assorted screws and nails for throwing. And a tire iron with the name Stratocumulus that Rex only now remembered had been used to ward off slithers before. Its power had probably sizzled down to nothing. Melissa only kept it in the trunk to change tires.
That was it.
Time to break out the big guns.
“Back left, back left,” Rex muttered to himself, slamming the door and running around the car. He pried at the Ford’s left-rear hubcap with Stratocumulus, useful for something at least. As he pulled, Rex allowed himself a satisfied grin. He and Dess had worked hard on this one, agreeing to use it only when absolutely necessary.
Which would be now.
The hubcap sprang off, clattering to the street. Around its inside edge were a host of tiny symbols, Stone Age pictograms, thirty-nine of them, etched by Dess as per Rex’s instructions. She had used a drill bit stolen from shop class, made from a tungsten alloy so high tech, it could bore through steel like wet plaster.
Rex shoved the hubcap into the bag, hoping it would be enough.
He ran back to the open front door and shouted up the stairs.
“Melissa!” She didn’t answer. “Come on!”
Then he heard a sound from above.
She was whimpering.
Rex found her on her knees before the woman, her fingers still splayed in their mindcasting grip, shaking her head and moaning.
He sighed. “Like I said.”
“It’s so sick, Rex…”
He swallowed. It wasn’t like Melissa to freak out at darkling thoughts. She always said their ancient, arid minds were a hundred times easier to tolerate than those of humanity.
“Come on.” He hauled Melissa to her feet and pulled her toward the stairs. She didn’t fight him, just trailed along, making hiccuping noises, like a kid trying to keep from crying.
Rex tried not to think about what she’d seen.
The front door was still ajar, and he kicked his way through. The house across the street looked occupied, hopefully full of shiny metal and modern machines. Rex had one more trick up his sleeve—or stuffed into the buckle of his right boot, actually.
Melissa ran with him across the asphalt, finally shaken out of her panic. But when he looked back at her, the cold light of the rising blue moon glimmered from a single tear on her cheek.
She was crying. Melissa was crying.
Rex swallowed hard. We’re dead.
The front door was locked, so he swung Stratocumulus through the little stained-glass window at its center, stuck his arm in, and searched for the knob on the other side. Broken glass stabbed at the crook of his elbow, but his fingers found the dead bolt and spun it. As the door swung inward, Rex heard the sound of tearing cloth coming from his sleeve.
“Kitchen,” he said. Always the best tools there.
Melissa ran ahead as Rex paused to check his arm, spreading the ripped cloth to reveal torn flesh. As the blood welled up from the wound, the red color leeched away, turning to a steely blue-gray before his eyes.
“In here!” Melissa shouted from the back of the house.
He tore his gaze from the cut and ran, wondering for a moment if darklings were anything like sharks. Could they be driven into a frenzy by the smell of blood?
The kitchen was huge, bigger than Rex’s living room, with long stretches of counter space and two full range tops. The ambient blue light of the secret hour glowed from metal appliances and a block of knives.
Rex smiled. They weren’t dead yet.
He pulled open drawers until he found the silverware and brought a spoon up to his sharp eyes.
“Stainless Korean,” he read happily, and thrust the whole drawer into Melissa’s arms. “Find a room upstairs with no stiffs.”
She nodded mutely, her face still blank with shock.
Rex ransacked the kitchen, filling his duffel bag with nonstick ceramics, high-temperature alloys, all the spaceage materials that always started out in jet fighters and wound up in frying pans. After thirty frantic seconds he hoisted the heavy, clanking bag over one shoulder and grabbed the knife block with his free hand—the knives looked fearsome if nothing else. He headed for the stairs.
Melissa had found the perfect room. It was a study, with only one small window that looked out across the street at Darkling Manor. A computer dominated a small desk, and a pegboard full of cables filled one wall. More clean metal for the taking.
She was staring out the window, shuddering again.
“They’re almost here.”
Rex dropped the bag and slammed the door shut. Drawing a knife from the block and peering closely, he smiled.
“Somebody likes to cook.”
The knives were Japanese and gorgeous, bearing the magic words, Never needs sharpening. That meant high titanium content and laser shaping, the modern-day equivalent of a late-solutrean spear point—the Stone Age technology that had finally driven the darklings into the secret hour.
He pulled the slip of paper from his boot strap and unfolded it, then turned to the door and thrust the knife hard against it. The wood split with a satisfying thunk.
“Abnormalities.” Rex pulled another knife from the block. “Aboriginally,” he read from the piece of paper. Thunk. Pulled another knife…
He smiled grimly. This was one little resource Dess had never thought of (not that she needed help finding tridecalogisms).
The piece of paper was the second-to-last page of a Scrabble dictionary, the only kind of lexicon Rex had ever found that listed words by length.
“Accidentalism.” Whatever that was. Thunk. The door would be rock solid once he got to thirteen…
The knives ran out at twelve.
Rex squeezed his eyes shut tight. Why hadn’t he counted before starting? Nine would have been good enough. And anything would have been better than twelve.
He whirled around and grabbed a butter knife from the silverware drawer, turned back, and propelled it against the door with all his strength. The blunt tip skated off, taking his wrist a few inches from the serrated edge of a beautiful Japanese carving knife.
“Damn,” he said. Still twelve knives. He’d turned the door into a darkling magnet! How could he have been so—?
Rex blinked, staring at the knife trembling in the wood beside his head. Its blade was etched with snakes and frogs, its hilt cast like two scaly lizard tails, and its pommel, a tiny metal skull with glass eyes, seemed to be smiling at Rex. He’d never seen the knife before and found himself realizing that he wasn’t the only midnighter who had a few weapons put aside for a rainy day.
“Magnificently Instantaneous Gratification,” Melissa said.
He turned to face her. She was still on the other side of the room—she’d thrown it past Rex’s head.
Melissa had wiped the tears away, and her expression had returned to its usual midnight sneer. “I’m okay now.”
He let out his breath and started to nod, but movement out the window caught his eye. He crossed the room.
“Don’t look, Rex. You don’t want to—” But he’d already seen it.
The thing came down on undulating wings, two leathery sails that billowed from long, multijointed arms. Its hands, long-taloned and grasping the air with compulsive little twitches, must have been thirty feet apart. Its spiked tail whipped through the wind with every beat of the wings, as if to counterbalance the beast’s grotesque cargo.
Its body was thin, the darkling part of it anyway, ribs showing through its leathery flesh. The thing’s spindly hind legs stumbled, trembling feebly as it landed on the rooftop across the street, and its wings took one steadying stroke as it gained its footing.
Melissa, still facing away from the window, made a choking noise.
It had no head. Not a darkling head, anyway. A human torso seemed to be submerged into the creature’s flesh, and a half-visible human face stared glassily from its emaciated chest. Two secondary arms thrust from the sunken torso, ending in the hands and fingers of a person—a child, Rex now saw—which were clenched as if in pain.
“It thinks…” Melissa rasped, “…like us.”
Something burst through the window, an explosion of broken glass, fluttering wings, and ratlike squeaks. Needles of ice shot through Rex’s chest as the winged slither struck, and a sudden tangle of black filaments seemed to clutch his heart.
Blue sparks blinded him, the metal chains swinging from Melissa’s fist knocking the slither to the ground. Rex gasped for breath through frozen lungs, watching as she casually tipped the silverware drawer over onto the still-fluttering beast. The metal spat more sparks as the thing sizzled underneath the pile.
“You do the window,” she ordered, kicking the glowing forks, spoons, and knives around on the floor to prevent any crawling slithers from sneaking up on them.
Rex nodded and reached into the duffel bag. He tossed two handfuls of Dess’s nails and screws out the window, bringing screams and blue fire from the things that hovered or slithered just outside. A swing with Arachnophobia, the ball-peen hammer, dislodged something large that had taken hold of the sill.
“Help me with this,” he shouted, ice from the slither strike still grating in his lungs. The pegboard full of computer cables came down easily from the wall. Some of the cables were filled with useless copper and gold, Rex knew, but some would also contain advanced alloys, insulating plastics, and hopefully some fiber optics, all of which would bedevil their attackers. They leaned it against the window, and Rex began to empty the duffel bag, naming the pots and pans with the last tridecalogisms from his tattered Scrabble dictionary page.
“I got it,” Melissa said, pushing him away when his list ran out. She named the last few bits of metal, calling on the memorized emergency words they all kept in their heads.
“Unintelligent,” she murmured.
Rex leaned against the wall and shuddered. Every breath was icy from the slither strike. His shoulders were numb and his fingers moved slowly, like after a snowball fight without gloves. A few inches higher and the slither would have gotten him on the neck. The lore said that a few midnighters had actually died that way—suffocating, their windpipes choked with ice.
He’d been so awestruck by the… thing they’d seen, he’d almost been killed by a mere slither.
“Irresponsible,” Melissa named a frying pan.
“What was it?” he croaked.
She turned to him, shook her head. “It thinks like us.”
“A human, you mean?”
“A midnighter. I think she’s… she was one of us.”
“Mixed with one of them.”
Melissa stared at the meat thermometer in her hand and whispered, “Indescribable.”
Something big hurled itself against the pegboard. The coiled computer cables turned into flickering circles, like Christmas lights still in their boxes. A long tendril snaked from behind the flimsy board, wrapping itself around Melissa’s waist. She thrust the point of the meat thermometer into it, and the tendril retreated with a shriek.
“Just a lower darkling,” she said.
Rex sank to the floor. Melissa shoved the last of their defenses into place and crouched next to him, holding his hand, protected by her thick woolen glove.
“I’ll show you what I felt,” she said. “From the thing and that woman. After we get out of here. Tomorrow we’ll touch again.”
“After we get out of here?” He looked at the door with its thirteen knives, the pegboard full of glowing metal. Maybe it would hold, maybe not. Of course, after what he’d seen, death was relative.
Better eaten than… changed.
“Yes, Rex. After we get out of here.”
A fluttering and shrieking came from the blocked window, a slither beating its wings as it died, the pegboard trembling.
“They’re unhappy about us seeing that thing, aren’t they?”
Melissa nodded thoughtfully. “You said it. They aren’t going to give up easily.”
Another slither launched itself through the window, the smell of its burning flesh making Rex gag. The darklings’ mindless peons were sacrificing themselves to deplete the room’s defenses. Rex smiled grimly; it would take more than slithers to get through that pile of space-age metal and tridecalogisms.
Noises came from inside the house now, the beating of frantic wings filling the hallway outside. The thirteen knives began to glow.
A black snake head squeezed under the door, then another—crawling slithers testing them. The first few burned up in the clutter of silverware and fallen nails, but more came. Melissa stomped on their writhing forms, the anklets around her boots glowing blue, then white. Rex wielded Arachnophobia, crushing slithers with the hammer until his arm ached.
After long minutes the slither attacks subsided. The fluttering of wings died away, the metal scattered around the room losing its wild glow.
Rex sank to the floor, wiping sweat from his eyes. His lungs were full of the reek of burned slither flesh, his muscles completely exhausted.
“They’re giving up?” he croaked.
Melissa stood unmoving, eyes shut.
Then Rex heard it. Something coming up the stairs. He couldn’t imagine the half-human thing moving through the house, so it was probably a normal darkling, a brash young one to invade this modern place. Melissa didn’t say what she tasted, just stared at the door with blank-faced fatigue. The stairs creaked under its weight, and the thirteen knives began to glow again.
Terror threatened to paralyze him, but then Rex’s mind went back to what she’d said: Tomorrow we’ll touch again. His head swam at the thought. Finally there was some promise of something more between him and Melissa. They were not going to die tonight.
He pulled the hubcap from the duffel bag.
“Come and get it,” he said softly.
The knives shivered in the wood, lances of tremulous blue fire jumping between them. The scratching sound of claws traveled slowly down the door, and Rex could hear the harsh panting of a big cat. It had taken a hunting shape.
A carving knife began to wobble, almost slipping from the door, but Rex thrust it back into the wood. Brief contact with the glowing metal scalded his palm.
He brought the hubcap to his lips.
“Categorically Unjustifiable Appropriation.”
The metal ignited, coursing with blue fire along its rim, the tiny pictures seeming to dance. The hubcap vibrated in his hand, giving off a buzzing heat that crawled up his arm and into his shoulder. Rex smiled grimly. He had seen what Dess’s really good work could do. So had the darklings.
The panting outside stopped for a moment, a catch in the creature’s breath.
A chuckle escaped Melissa’s lips. “Scaredy-cat.”
A roar answered from outside, a huge howl of pain and anger that made the whole room shudder. But Rex knew from the defeated sound that the darkling had sensed the pulsing weapon in his hand and had decided not to throw away its cold, lingering life.
The stairs creaked again as the darkling descended, the knives fading to a dull, spent gray, and the dread that had hung over the room slowly diminished.
Before the hour ended, Rex took one last look through one of the rips in the clawed and battered pegboard. He saw the halfling leave, making its ungainly way from the balcony of the master bedroom to the roof, then taking to its overburdened wings.
“Ready to run?” Melissa said.
“What?” he asked.
“They’re all leaving. The entourage too.” Melissa smiled. “We’ll have a couple of minutes, but I don’t think our motionless friends are going to like what we did to their house.”
He looked around the room. “Could be you’re right.”
“Damn kids with their senseless vandalism,” she said.
Rex sighed, thinking of the broken window downstairs. “They might have an alarm system, come to think of it.”
Melissa pulled Magnificently Instantaneous Gratification from the door.
“It won’t work any—” he started, but her expression silenced him.
“I also use it for the regular kind of protection, Rex. In case anyone tries to touch me.”
“Oh.” He looked at his watch. Two minutes.
They ran down the stairs. At the front door Melissa gathered herself for one last mindcast, then nodded. “All clear.”
They reached the old Ford as the blue hour ended. Rex had never been so glad to see blackness sweeping across the sky. At the moment normal time reached them, carried on a cold Oklahoma wind, a high-pitched ringing filled the night.
“Damn,” he said. “They did have an alarm.”
Melissa jumped in and started the car, and they pulled away with a screech. Rex stayed quiet as she drove, letting her mindcast for police. A few minutes later she pulled over and turned off the Ford’s headlights, huddling down out of sight.
Rex also slunk down in his seat, catching a glimpse of two private security cars as they zoomed past.
Melissa took his hand, her wool glove warm against his skin. “Get some poison, Rex.”
“Something that kills fast. Like one of those snakes that stops your heart in twenty seconds.”
Had what she’d seen tonight finally pushed Melissa over the edge? “Melissa, you can’t—”
“Not for me, moron.” She shook her head. “You know the midnighter inside that monster?”
“She’s still alive in there, somewhere. I could feel her. They keep her mind alive so they can use the human part of her to think in signs and symbols. But she knows what’s happened to her.”
Rex put his face in his hands. After a few moments he said, “But how would we get the poison to her?”
“Not for her. You.” Melissa turned on the headlights, stared out the front windshield. “She’s sick, probably dying, and soon they’ll decide they need another one and come looking for you.”
He blinked, shook his head. “What…?”
“Think, Rex. They can already fly, they can already mind-cast, and they hate math.” Melissa pulled onto the road. “She’s a seer.”