A car crash is unimaginably violent. I’ve been in no fewer than nine of them in my life, and this was the second that hadn’t been intentional on my part. Even with that experience, it was still enough to knock me for a loop. I was vaguely aware of Horace being pulled away from me. I tried to cling to consciousness, but felt it slip through my fingers. Silver foxes sprinted through my dreams, and grinning cartoon dinosaurs followed them.
My eyes snapped open. It had been less than ten minutes since the car had been body-slammed, according to the watch on my wrist. The Thunderbird lay in the grass on the highway median strip, and one look told me all I needed to know. The frame was damaged beyond repair. The hood was gone, and the engine had been torn out. The Ship of Theseus had foundered on the rocks of misfortune. Something had killed my Thunderbird, and stolen my nephew.
I had no idea what had done this. The sign had attacked. An illusion, maybe, or something animated by magic. There were old stories in the Order’s archives of Tsukumogami, objects given life by human belief, the gods of individual tools. There might even be a handful still extant in the world, conceivably, though I had never seen one, which was really saying something. They were things like ancient weapons, legendary castles, places full of so much belief and thought that they had spontaneously come to life. They were not fucking highway signs.
The door creaked opened as I pushed at it, some miracle of engineering letting me escape from the car. I fell out into the October night, the icy chill in the air washing over my shoulders. I let out a ragged gasp, leaning forward heavily on shaking arms.
The world was supposed to be safe, god damn it. It was supposed to be calm. We had fought back the monsters. We’d won. Fox demons weren’t supposed to steal women’s hearts. Walking signs weren’t supposed to wreck my fucking car. I was too old for this shit. That wasn’t me trying to be clever. I was in my 50s. I had been a great fighter, once, perhaps one of the best in the world. But I was growing weaker every day, as my own body betrayed me.
I was reminded of an old story from Norse mythology. Simple enough; Loki, Þjálfi, and Thor are at a giant’s castle, and are challenged to three contests. Loki loses an eating contest to fire; Þjálfi- don’t ask me how to pronounce that, I only ever saw it spelled- lost a footrace to thought. So, Thor finds himself challenged to a wrestling competition, against an old nursemaid woman, Elli. He wrestled her, and struggled mightily, but was eventually forced down to one knee. The twist is that she was Old Age, the embodiment of it. The fact that he managed to wrestle her as long as he did was shocking.
But he still lost.
I unlocked the trunk, only to find the damaged frame had gotten the damned thing stuck. I heaved at it for several seconds, and sank to my haunches, panting for air for a moment, my arms aching. The metal was stuck fast, so wedged in that there was no moving it. I sank forward, and took deep breaths of the cold, dry, autumn air, trying to regain my breath. Getting old had happened so gradually. What made me think that I could still be the hero of the day? What made me think that I could fight old age, any better than Thor had? To be human, to be a man, meant to come into this world knowing your return ticket had already been punched.
I thought of Horace.
The boy had his whole life ahead of him. Meeting girls, finding out what he was great at, changing the world someday. All of those things he’d do someday. As long as I didn’t give up, right here, right now. As long as I wasn’t weak.
I stood up again, and fixed my feet. The tendons stood out in my arms, as I heaved with all of my strength. First the metal gave an inch, and then two, before leaping up out of the groove I had bent for it through the broken frame, nearly throwing me on my ass as the resistance gave way. I carefully pulled myself to my feet, and stared down into the back of the trunk, spots flashing before my eyes.
My hands drifted over Oliver’s wooden swords. I pulled them out, carefully drawing the two blades, one short, one long, and set them into my belt. I was not a swordfighter, but I knew a little bit of everything, and in fighting, leverage was king. Making your fist twice as fast and a tenth the size was excellent for dealing some damage, and I didn’t know what I would fight. They might come in handy. Then I checked the rest of the supplies I’d brought with me.
Preparation dies hard. I’d fought a lot of monsters in my days, and fighting monsters was a great deal like playing golf. It was expensive, it catered to an exclusive clientele, it required a ridiculous amount of space, and you needed the right tools for the right job. I briefly considered the machine pistol and the shotgun, but dismissed both. They were meant for humans. It was the rare individual who knew how to use firearms to take down the supernatural. I’d sometimes considered that it was a matter of intimacy, of desire. Guns were impersonal, a way of killing without confronting something, and I’d met many monsters that were defined by their refusal to die. You had to want them dead, and that was tough with a gun. I pushed them aside. I doubted that whatever was responsible for my nephew’s kidnapping would be that easy to kill.
The incendiary grenades, on the other hand, were far more effective. There was only so much willpower could do, after all, when white phosphorous was chewing through something. They were horrendously illegal, being anti-tank weapons, but the Order of Set had always been well-connected. I hooked the three of them into my belt along with the swords, and frowned into the trunk. My eyes briefly flashed over the black knife, but I shook my head. I wasn’t fighting gods, which meant it was a bad idea to tempt fate with that particular weapon. I left it behind, and instead picked up a pair of gloves.
Boxing was the sweet science. It was not, strictly speaking, the best martial art for many things. But when it came to breaking something with your fists, it was a fantastic choice. The lead powder filling the knuckles had let me punch hard enough to puncture a steel plate in my prime. I couldn’t swing the way I used to, but it’d be enough. It had to be.
I paused for a moment, and picked the old flask up from out of the trunk. It sloshed, a small measure of the elixir still within. It would be useless, of course. The equivalent of beer gone skunky, or wine turned to vinegar, the metaphysical power in it long lost. No more magic in the world. Not for me, anyway. Apparently there was still plenty to spare for the things that preyed on the people I cared about.
You never let the predators get a taste for flesh. You either keep them from starting, or if that doesn’t work, you kill them. I should never have let the fucking fox go. It was behind this, I was certain.
I slid the hip flask into my pocket all the same, because it felt good to have the familiar weight there, in my pocket. It reminded me of better days.
I paused briefly to consider calling Li Xue Zi. The serpent would be useful, but I had not brought it with me. I couldn’t afford to wait for it to arrive. I didn’t know how long Horace had for me to catch up to him, but I couldn’t let him fall behind. I hiked across the highway median, and began marching towards town.
You can drive a route a thousand times, a million times, and it will feel much, much different from walking it. The world becomes compressed in a car. The effort is taken out of movement, the uncertainty. Your focus narrows to a point, as you race towards it. Relativity works much the same way. The faster you move, the faster things happen around you, the less you experience of it.
I’d never fallen in love after Iris. Never had children. Never done much of anything. I’d killed monsters. I’d made the world safe. And my reward was this last insult. I’d raced through my life.
I reached the wooden sign, proclaiming the town ‘The best little town by a dam site’. The small town unfolded before me, the miniature suburb, the rolling houses around the hills. The Halloween decorations. The distant rustle of the leaves as the wind blew through the town. It was not much past sunset, but the town had gone quiet already, only the occasional car driving by. I considered asking for a ride, but I couldn’t draw someone else into this. Whoever had done it would be watching the roads, prepared to attack me. I needed to be subtle, I needed to go unnoticed.
As I walked through the small suburbs towards the bridge across the river, a shiver ran up my spine. I turned my head, trying to figure out what was getting to me. There was no movement, no glowing eyes in the darkness, but a lifetime of instinct was screaming at me, flooding me with adrenaline.
I stared at the house. The one that had held the giant inflatable witch, earlier in the day.
The yard was now empty. The strings that had hung from the trees, suspending the stuffed ghosts, still hung there. No ghosts hung from them.
Certain things are very quiet. They make almost no noise. But it is impossible to move without making any disturbance. I’ve heard of, even met, a few people who claimed that they could detect the emotions of others. Empathy amped to a level where they could sense an attack coming by the hatred, the desire to kill, in someone else. I’d believed it was horse-shit, until I felt this. The antipathy towards me, the hatred, the desire for me to die.
I turned, and transferred the momentum of the rotation into one brutal haymaker. My fist sank into a sack of leaves wrapped in white plastic as it descended towards me, clawed talons outstretched in front of it, like some freakish mutation of an owl. It bounced off of my fist, rolled, and hopped up again, leaping into the air.
Three more of the things descended from the trees. Two orange, one white, ghoulish smiles painted onto their faces, which changed into expressions of rage. I ducked back, sweeping them out of the air with strikes that sent them bouncing and twirling away, but did little permanent damage. They hissed, and retreated, moving towards the trees, climbing up the barren branches, trying to get a proper attack.
I let my eyes run over the scene. They were gliding. Good on straight-aways, but they needed the trees around them. The reason my strikes weren’t doing any damage was obvious; There were no vital organs to pierce, nothing to damage through blunt trauma, and they were too light for me to harm them. Ironically, the damned knife would have been just the ticket, here; Or perhaps the gun, if I felt like shooting off a weapon in the middle of a residential area.
Instead, I drew the wooden sword.
This was not one of the soft bamboo swords typically used in Kendo, it should be noted. It was thirty six inches of lacquered hardwood. Oliver played for keeps. Wood was not notorious for keeping a good edge, for any variety of reasons- But it could keep an excellent point. One of the ghosts lunged down at me, and I raised it, thrusting it forward. It skewered the ghost like a kebab, red leaves fountaining from the wound as though my life had suddenly become an extremely seasonal John Woo movie. I swung the sword to the side, and the creature bounced off the ground twice, before coming to a rest. I raised the sword again.
I never saw the fist coming.
It was soft, like being struck with an airbag. I’m using the word ‘soft’ here in a relative context, because it still lifted me in a huge arc, throwing me twenty feet through the air, and through a picket fence, which was substantially harder. I rolled, and sprang back up to my feet, panting. The massive inflatable witch charged at me, twelve feet tall, and moving with surprising speed. It took great bounding steps, and I stabbed forward with all of my strength.
Not entirely surprisingly, the sword rebounded off of the thick membrane of Lycra, stretching and rebounding, and the creature fetched me another airbag blow, swinging me through the air, and against a tree. I heard something snap, and gritted my teeth as I hit the ground, gasping and panting. Each breath was agonizing, but this was not the first time I’d broken a rib. Adrenaline surged, and I forced myself to my feet, the pain becoming distant. I checked to my surroundings. I couldn’t beat the thing, and it was a distraction anyways.
I turned, and sprinted. The lumbering figure followed me through the trees, letting out harsh squeaks as it brushed against the trunks of trees. I cut between two of the houses, and it let out a harsh cry of rage, unable to fit in the narrow space. It was fast on open ground, but it wasn’t able to fit through the spaces where I could. I could keep away from it, break off. I rested a hand on my chest, feeling gingerly for where the ribs had been broken, and winced. The pang of pain told me that it was going to be unpleasant as all hell once my adrenaline bled away, but in the meantime, I had a job to do.
The smaller creatures were not as constrained as the inflatable witch. They were, however, nervous after watching me skewer one of their companions, climbing through the tree branches above me, circling hungrily, skittering through the trees, waiting for an opening. I backed away from them, scanning around to keep an eye open for the inflatable witch. It was silent when it wanted to be; I couldn’t count on hearing it coming. I thought back to the display. Hadn’t there been something else, there?
I stopped dead as I found my way blocked by webbing. Three massive rubber spiders the size of hounds crouched in the web, something unpleasant and iridescent dripping from their mouths.
I reached to my belt, and grabbed one of the incendiaries, flicking out its pin with a practiced movement, and tossed it. It landed in the web, and stuck fast there. It would’ve been useless against the inflatable witch, or the agile little ghost-bags. The Model 308-1 detonated, spreading napalm around it in a sticky spatter. Fire spread, napalm flowing forth like a wave of liquid flame, covering the plastic spiders. There is no pain quite like napalm, a fire that sticks, that chews, that burns through flesh. I watched as the spiders were consumed, chittering and screeching with sounds that were disturbingly human, their forms melting away into a hard, dark ash that scattered across the ground. Then I kept running, darting through the opening created. The trees were burning. There was the sound of a fire alarm going off. It didn’t matter. I had to trust that I wasn’t going to burn some poor bastard to death, because I didn’t have time to lose.
The street on the other side of the rows of houses lead up to the bridge, the way to the house. That would be where they’d taken Horace, if they’d taken him anywhere. The supernatural couldn’t resist fucking bookends. I studied the iron girders. It was an old-fashioned truss bridge, the kind with great iron girders that rose in an arc from one side to the other, perhaps a hundred feet long. Open space. I sprinted towards it, and was rewarded by the sound of the inflatable witch roaring towards the intersection, squeaking and keening. It wasn’t trying to be subtle anymore.
I hit the place where the iron girders met the ground, and raced up the rounded arc. It wasn’t a great deal of height, perhaps twelve feet, not even enough to bring me out of reach of the witch. It raced up the girder after me as I spun to face it. One of those fists came at me, and I ducked back, pain exploding like silvery fire in my chest as the ribs ground together, but the creature became unbalanced. I lashed out with the wooden sword, striking it in the side, and sending it tumbling down to the pavement of the bridge. It was big, but light as one would expect of an inflated Then I jumped after it.
My own muscle power wasn’t sufficient to pierce the Lycra membrane. My entire weight, amplified by gravity, coming down on top of the creature, all focused on the tip of the sword, was. I fell with the sword braced between my legs and my feet, and sank in nearly two feet before there was a loud rip, and air began to rush out of the creature. I hopped back, springing off and landing unsteadily, forced to take a few steps to avoid falling flat on my face, and breathed a sigh of relief as the sound of the deflating decoration whistled through the air. I leaned heavily against the girders, just long enough to catch my breath.
“Won’t- let you take him-” The sound was odd, the whistling modulating like a voice, almost human, but just far enough from it to send a shiver down my spine. The inflatable witch lifted a hand, grabbing at my leg weakly. “He’s- our- s- sav-”
I swatted the hand away. “He’s mine.” I turned my back on the deflating witch, and started hiking up the intersection.
Upstate New York is surprisingly hilly. That’s another thing that you forget in a car, the effort it takes to climb those peaks. It is also spectacularly dark. At first the houses were lit, providing some mild sources of light, keeping it from being entirely nightmarishly dark. But as I kept climbing the hill, those faded away. I kept my head moving, watching my surroundings, trying to breathe as softly as I could.
I reached the scenic overlook that provided a view of the town below. I stopped for a moment, and let out a slow breath. The town seemed peaceful, from up here. Quiet. Calm. No sign at all that monsters were running wild. The pine trees stretched across the valley floor, the hill across the lake occasionally dappled with light. The sky itself was dark. It was the night of the new moon, which made it difficult to see where I was going. Only starlight lit the way, and the only nearby light came from the dam’s control building. I began to walk again.
The hills were treacherous, in the dark. Humans, after all, are not meant for travelling in darkness. Humans are one of the few animals to lack a tapetum lucidum; A type of covering on the back of the eyes, designed to reflect light back. It’s what makes animals eyes shine strangely when they’re reflecting light. Most primates don’t have them. On the other hand, we don’t give ourselves away like them. A trained human can tell you what kind of animal is in the darkness by the reflection of its eyes.
I stopped short, perhaps twenty feet past the sign for the park. My spine was crawling again. I turned back towards it, and frowned.
The dinosaur was no longer on the sign.
That was probably going to bite me in the ass at some point. I rested a hand on one of the incendiary grenades, and kept moving.
So, humans cannot see in the dark. But we work out ways around that. We tame the creatures that do. We make fire. We drive back the night. Some of us fear it. I never did. I looked up at the sky for a moment, and the brilliant stars that shone there. The darker it became, the more brilliantly light stood out. My brother had been the same way. Everyone had always loved him. They had believed in him. He’d been their hero. I’d just been the thug. But when he died…
I didn’t want him to die. I’d rather I had died than him. But I wasn’t stupid or self-deluded enough to claim I’d never wanted what he had. When he died, it had been my chance. That was why I’d never visited Iris. I knew I was not good enough for her.
There was a rustle in the bushes, and I turned. Red eyes flashed, at about knee height. Fox eyes. I narrowed my eyes. We stood at the foot of a great hill, a large house behind me, light cast by a single lamp post set in the middle of a broad field. “You were the one who ate Iris’ heart.”
“Sort of,” murmured the fox. It shifted, and suddenly, it stood in the shadows, shaped like a human. Nine tails spread out behind it, darker patches in the night. Vaguely feminine. Red eyes still glowing in the starlight. My heart pounded, and the blood surged through my head. The wooden katana was in my hand, I realized. My chest did not hurt anymore, adrenaline driving away the pain and the weakness, replacing it with cold, slithering hate. “I remember you. Randall.”
“You killed the only woman I ever loved.”
“Still?” she asked, and then suddenly noise filled the air. Trees cracked and snapped as the thing swept through the forest to my left. It was perhaps twenty feet tall at the hump, and close to forty feet long. It vaguely resembled an Apatosaurus, the same long neck and tail, though its head was nothing like that. A mad wild grin was on its teeth, shining in the night as it charged towards me and the fox at the same time.
The kumiho, the heart-eating nine-tailed fox, let out a low ‘wuff’ as the dinosaur turned sharply, tail catching it in the chest, and throwing it into a tree. It slumped to the ground, even as the dinosaur’s head whipped towards me. I stepped back, trying to get a handle on it.
Fighting a quadruped is different from fighting a biped. It’s also surprisingly rare. Quadrupeds have far greater balance and speed than bipeds. They move differently from humans. And few things that I fight go around on four legs. I wasn’t certain, at this point, what the hell the thing could be. Another illusion was possible, but to animate a simple two-dimensional painting into this monstrosity was far beyond the level of the Halloween decorations down in town. Nonetheless, I was certain that the sword and my fists would not do the job. So I did what I did best, and baited it.
“Hey! You ugly motherfucker! Newspapers are dying a slow and torturous death, and your comic sucked shit!”
The creature’s head swung towards me, eyes narrowed. It turned ponderously, and started to charge towards me, lifting its head. I backed away with a couple of quick steps, making it run just a little bit further, build up just a bit more momentum. As it approached, its head swung down in a single massive arc designed to snap me in half.
The thing about big, strong, heavy things is that they get a lot of momentum going. This makes them very, very dangerous, because that momentum converts itself into force if it strikes you. It also makes it hard for them to catch you by surprise. I drew the grenade, pulled the pin, and dove down between its legs. I judged the distance just right, narrowly avoiding being stomped into a thin paste, and threw the grenade as I came back to my feet, tossing it in a long arc that terminated right at the creature’s hump.
It erupted into a brilliant, bright-white fire as I drew the wooden sword, covering the creature’s back, and eating into it. A smell like woodsmoke filled the air as the creature shrieked. Then it lashed around, turning with surprising speed. Its jaws latched around the wooden sword and ripped it from my hands, hurling it into the darkness of the woods where it had charged from. In the same movement, it threw me to the ground with the force of the blow, leaving me on my back, stunned. The creature marched forward, huge feet stomping. It was mortally wounded, but it didn’t realize it yet. It wasn’t a living creature, despite appearances. There was no spine to sever, no vital organs to shut it down. It would die, but not before it took me with it.
I saw the lacquered sword tumble through the air, and land in the hand of the kumiho. She stood there, her eyes flaring red, as the creature charged towards me. Then, she moved. It was the kind of speed you saw in the supernatural, not so much a movement as being in one place and then another, seemingly without movement.
It was a goddamn wooden sword. It had an edge that wouldn’t cut butter. It shouldn’t have been able to split the creature in half like that, from head to toe. But the supernatural didn’t care about the fucking rules. She had wanted the dinosaur dead, and so it fell into two halves, crumbling and withering away, so much paint blowing away in the wind.
I lay on the ground, breathing hard, as the kumiho approached me, sword still in hand. It bent over, and pulled the shorter blade, the wooden wakizashi, from my belt. Then she turned away, and started walking towards the house.
I pushed myself to my feet, my ribs aching. The adrenaline was ebbing away again, leaving the pain of the blows running through me. But I stood up. That’s what I did. That’s why I was the best.
“I’m not letting you touch my nephew.”
“He’s my fucking son, you pig-headed son of a bitch.”
She turned, and the distant glow from a house illuminated her features. She stood naked, the darkness preserving her modesty somewhat. She looked younger, but her hair was the same fine shade of salt and pepper. She looked just like she had when she’d married Oliver.
“Iris?” I said, my voice suddenly weak. Then I firmed my resolve. “No. I fucking buried you. I saw your corpse. You’re not Iris. You’re whatever fucking monster made the tremendous mistake of eating the woman I loved.”
I lunged, gloved hands tightened into fists, and reached out for the kumiho’s throat, grabbing hard and digging my fingers in. Before my other fist could make contact, her palm came across my cheek, and spun me in a complete loop. She could’ve probably taken my head off if she’d wanted. And I had to admit, the sensation was familiar. I shook my head, throwing the stars off, and stared up at her. There were things that could imitate people fairly well, steal their faces, their mannerisms even maybe. But Kumiho were seductive things. They were indirect. That slap was all Iris.
“Same old Randall, trying to punch all your problems.” She smirked. My heart lurched.
“How are you still alive? I saw your body. I saw…” I was quiet. “I’m so sorry, Iris. I’m sorry I wasn’t there.”
“Yeah, well, a bit late for sorries, isn’t it?” She smirked. “I don’t know why. The last thing I remember was the fox changing into this young woman. She took a knife to me, and… I woke up outside, shaped like a fox.” She flexed her fingers. “Oliver always told me more about those ‘business trips’ of yours than he should’ve. This is something strange, isn’t it?”
“I-” I opened and closed my mouth a few times. When I spoke, it came out weak. “You knew?”
“I knew you two weren’t doing much business on those trips. I was the one who’d get to see the scars Oliver picked up. You kept secrets from me, Randall.”
I looked to the side. “That was for your own good. It was supposed to protect you. The things you learn in this business, they change the way that you look at the world. They make you vulnerable. I just wanted you to be… safe.”
“Yeah. Well, that worked out fantastically.” She crossed her arms, and shook her head, sliding the two blades under her armpits, holding them there. “We need to get Horace.”
“I need to-” I paused for a moment, and studied her. I rested a hand on my chest, and winced, the pain lancing through me momentarily. “Shit, no, yeah, we need to get him. I don’t think I’ve got much of a chance of taking on whatever captured him on my own.” I rested a hand on my ribs, and winced. “I’m sorry, Iris. I don’t know what this thing is, whether it was trying to hurt me, or if it was angry at Oliver, or-”
“This isn’t about you, Randall. It’s not about Oliver. It’s not even about me.” Iris shook her head slowly. “This is about Horace. I could feel it on him. He’s special.”
“He’s a good kid, sure, but-”
“Tskumogami, Randall. Oliver told me about them. Think about the things that have been attacking you tonight.”
I frowned. Then my eyes widened. All the things he’d focused on. “No. Come on, Tsukumogami are a myth, and even if they were real, they’re supposed to take decades. You can’t-”
“I’m sure.” She turned back towards the hill. “He’s making them. I don’t know how, but I can feel the power bubbling off of him. It’s calling to me, even from here. It’s calling other things. He’s special, and he can’t control this, and we need to get moving.”
Then she turned, and began walking up the hill.
“For fucks sakes, Iris, at least let me give you my jacket,” I wheezed, racing to catch up with her, chest jarring with each step. I pulled it off, and slung it around her shoulders, and the harsh expression faded from her face.
“Thank you, Randall.”