One

 

“WHATEVER YOU do, boy, don’t get eaten!” Jonas yelled at me from across the devastated schoolyard. “If you’re going to die, you don’t want to go as a giant squid’s snack! Think about what that’ll do to your reputation as a Stalker!”

Right. Because what people think of me and how I died should be my last thought as I drew my final breath. My reputation as a Stalker was already a sketchy one, mostly because I wasn’t human and I’d been raised and trained by Dempsey, the most foulmouthed, hot-tempered, itchy-trigger-fingered Stalker ever to be given a license.

And those were his best qualities.

It’s a well-known fact being a Stalker for the SoCalGov meant long hours, lean pay, and an extremely short lifespan. It was a brutal existence with little thanks, and if you were like me, a chimera of Sidhe and Unsidhe blood, it meant a lifetime of being viewed with skepticism and met with a loaded gun if you trespassed on a rancher’s land in pursuit of a particularly nasty monster.

That’s what Stalkers did—not the trespassing part so much, but the monsters. We were paid to take down, relocate, and sometimes eradicate anything that preyed on human settlements. I couldn’t imagine there was much need for my job before the Merge, but when the elfin world folded into Earth, it brought more than the Sidhe and Unsidhe courts.

There were wars following the Merge. The introduction of two separate races already at odds with each other to a human world used to being on top of the food chain naturally led to conflict. On the human side, thousands died. On the elfin, at least a couple of hundred. Where Earth had technology, the Sidhe and the Unsidhe had magic and an unimaginable resistance to death. But they also couldn’t reproduce like humans, so even the few casualties they suffered were catastrophic.

A peace was eventually struck, and the three races were reluctantly learning to live with one another over the subsequent decades—mostly because none of us had any choice. Everyone was struggling to survive in a world turned upside down by an event that nobody predicted or could control. The elfin courts had fought among themselves and against each other for centuries, and adding humans to the mix only made things worse. All sides were partners in an uneasy alliance, sharing resources and knowledge in little bits and pieces and opening up opportunities that no one ever imagined could exist.

Being a Stalker was an opportunity because the Merge didn’t just bring elfin to Earth. It also brought their monsters—which was why I was deep in the bowels of San Diego’s understreets, in the middle of an abandoned schoolyard, fighting a blue-spotted megacuttlefish the size of an elephant.

And by fighting, I meant letting myself get entangled in its tentacles to gain a clear shot at its underbelly when it drew me close enough to its snapping four-foot-wide beak. That hadn’t been the original plan, but as I was about to go on a one-way ticket down a not-ready-for-dinnertime calamari appetizer, it was all I had.

“Stop getting in the way of its eyes,” Jonas shouted at me from his very safe position a few yards away. “I’m trying to shoot its head, and you keep moving in front of it.”

My hanai uncle was difficult to see in the perpetual gloom of the understreets. That seemed odd—how did anyone miss a brawny, nearly seven-foot-tall black man wielding two sawed-off shotguns?—but the black ink the cuttlefish sprayed on me might have clouded my vision, and the monster’s hold on my foot as it swung me around like I was a piece of toilet paper it was trying to get off its shoe might have had something to do with my concentration difficulties.

“I can’t even see its fucking eye!” I tried shouting back, but there was little hope Jonas heard me. The cuttlefish flailed me about and slammed me into a part of its body that felt like its head, but I couldn’t be certain. Since I had a death grip on my knife, I stabbed at whatever I could reach, but the angle was all wrong and its skin was too slick, so all I did was irritate it. “Swear to Pele, I’m going to turn you into tacos.”

It was a terrible pun, a play on the word tako, but since no one but me heard it, I wouldn’t catch shit for it. The cuttlefish didn’t have an opinion or a sense of humor. But then, we were trying to kill it, and since I’ve often bitten on the other side of that knife, I can attest that laughter is not normally my first go-to when I’m trying not to die.

Or maybe it is, because I just made a pun about cuttlefish and tacos.

Another circuit of the air above its body and the monster lost its hold and sent me careening into a decrepit chain-link fence. The slam of my body against the woven metal was like the cymbal finale of a symphony—a rattle of chimes and clashes loud enough to send a piercing shock wave through my eardrums. I rolled off of the fence and into the dirt and scraped my face on the scrabble of dead weeds clustered about a post.

I quickly considered staying put. Sure, the thing would probably graduate to munching on children in the next week or so, but they weren’t my kids. I couldn’t even have kids. I was a genetic cocktail of warring elfin DNA, incubated in a magical stew and hatched out of a crucible. The closest thing I would ever have to a child was my cat, who I found when it was eating one of my kills.

No, I couldn’t think of one good reason to get back up on my feet and do battle with the rotten-tuna-smelling monster that was slithering free of the wading pool it now called home, but the bounty it would bring Jonas would be enough to feed his family for the next couple of months.

“Get off your ass, Kai,” I scolded myself as I shook my nerves back into place. I’d lost my Glock as soon as the thing grabbed me, but I was still in possession of all of my knives, if not half of my wits. But damn, I ached. “It’s a fucking appetizer. A couple of passes with your knife and you’ll have ika for days.”

This was supposed to be a simple bounty. A brief contract put out by the Post to eliminate a displaced foreign entity in the southern quadrant of San Diego’s understreets. The job seemed pretty cut-and-dried.

The report sent over with the bounty stated that a small cephalopod of sea origins had somehow made its way through the sewage system and ended up at a brackish pond near New Barrio Logan. The SoCalGov inspector reported the mollusk was simply too large to go back through the grate it had come in through and was now trapped in the city proper. There had been some unverified instances of it preying on rodents, which we soon discovered from the locals was a big fat lie. The thing had been picking off dogs and cats for the past three weeks and had since moved on to slashing at any human who came too close.

I had just gotten too close.

Because twenty feet was too damned close when standing next to a wading pool with an angry, overgrown cuttlefish.

The understreets of San Diego were where the poor and disenfranchised gathered up what little they could scrape together and lived their lives in the belly of a vast metropolis. Efforts had been made to bring light and fresh water to the bowels of the sprawling city, but there was little return on investment for most politicians to do more than the bare minimum. Massive tracks of lights meant to replicate natural sunlight were affixed to the cement canopy separating lower San Diego from its upper regions, but they never seemed to be replaced when they broke. We were in a part of the understreets where copper piping was stripped from buildings for a few bucks and people sold wood scavenged from grocery store pallets a few blocks away.

Even the blue tik-tiks didn’t make it in as far as we were, their overhead cables cut and tied off as though they were nothing more than a gigantic macramé plant hanger waiting for the world’s most enormous fern.

Still, the neighborhood had its pride and its own fury. Someone had made enough noise for SoCalGov to send someone down to investigate their ravenous intruder, and when it was all done, I was definitely going to get some elote and carnitas fries from the kiosk on the corner to take home for dinner.

The fantastic smell coming from that grill had been driving me insane ever since we pulled up to the place, and oddly enough, even with the rotten-kelp-and-spoiled-seafoam odor caught in my nostrils, the kiosk’s aromatic smoke stayed with me.

“You okay, boy?” Jonas shouted as I wiped the ink out of my eyes, hoping to shake off the ringing in my head and get back into the action. He let loose a volley of shot into the monster, but all it seemed to do was anger it. The flat head on one of its long tentacles lashed out, narrowly missing Jonas’s face, and I was up on my feet before he could finish swearing.

By all rights the cuttlefish shouldn’t have been there. The explanation of its arrival through a sewer pipe connected to the ocean was plausible only if we weren’t nearly twenty-five miles inland. When we first got there, the wading pool appeared to be empty, half filled with algae-covered, garbage-choked water. But when we got closer, the monster erupted out in a flurry of tentacles and a snapping black beak.

The size of it made me lose speech. It was larger than a rhino, with pale angry eyes dominating its frilled triangular head, and its pale flesh rippled pink and purple beneath its startlingly bright cobalt spots. The bloated remains of a dog floated in the pool next to it, and the rank smell of the water made Jonas gag. I’d smelled worse. Hell, I’d literally smelled worse than that pool myself more than a few times in my life. It was the malevolence in its gaze that brought me up short.

Then it began to crawl out of the pool and the game changed drastically.

Most sea creatures needed water to breathe. As far as I knew, that was a truth that extended even to cuttlefish, no matter how big they were. But this one didn’t seem to be bothered by the fact that it had lifted mostly out of the foul pool as it lurched its way toward Jonas and me.

I didn’t move back fast enough, or maybe I just didn’t believe the thing was as quick as it turned out to be. One moment I had my gun aimed at its bulbous head and then the next I was being used as a cat toy to draw out its next snack.

“I’m fine.” It took me a bit to get up on my feet, but I forced my body to respond. “Let’s kill this thing and go home.”

“Planning on doing just that,” Jonas replied with a shit-eating grin. The streetlamps were bright enough to catch the silver in his closely cropped hair—more silver than had been there a few months before—but his growl was still fierce, even though there was a hitch to his step when he moved out of the monster’s reach. “If we do this right, we can have cuttlefish steaks for dinner. Meat’s good once you get it skinned.”

I didn’t like how slowly Jonas was moving. Hell, I didn’t like the fact that he was there at all, but he’d taken the bounty and asked me for help to bring the thing in. It took a lot for a man like Jonas to ask for help, but he was still recovering from a brutal attack months before, and he’d done right by me more times than I had hair on my head, so saying no wasn’t on the table.

Honestly, I just really didn’t like how slow he was responding or his wincing when he turned to take another shot at the monster.

“Bullets aren’t working on it,” I yelled at Jonas as I searched for at least one of my guns. I found my Glock on the pavement a few feet away and stumbled toward it. My hand closed down on the hilt, and my fingers felt like they were on fire from the mollusk’s spew. The creature had left a viscous film on my body, and a sharp tingle began to spread over my skin. I wasn’t up to date on my mollusk toxins, but something told me the cuttlefish had more surprises in it than just moving tentacles and a foul temper. “Jonas! Pele take you, don’t let that thing grab you. It’s—”

He got too near to the creature, and I saw his life flash before my eyes. I broke into a run—a hard, fast sprint toward an impossible target—as it aimed the flat sucker-filled end of its tentacle straight for Jonas’s head. My elfin blood and body gave me a distinct advantage among humans, but where our monsters were concerned, it was pretty neck and neck.

Even with the ones missing a neck.

I went right by Jonas and launched myself at the creature. It saw me coming and tried to correct the angle of its tentacle, but it couldn’t shift in time. I heard the slap of its meat hitting something, and I could only hope it wasn’t my adopted human uncle, but Jonas’s scream followed too closely on the heels of that horrific booming sound.

All I had left was my hope that he’d survived the strike.

My Glock was useless. I don’t know what normal cuttlefish were made out of, but this one seemed to be constructed out of Kevlar and meanness. Bullets ricocheted off of its skin, and after I emptied a clip into its head, I tossed my gun aside and went after it with my knife. Sometimes killing had to happen up close, and this was going to get very messy.

I’d already gotten personal with the thing, but that hadn’t prepared me for the stench. There was something wrong with it, or maybe there was more beneath its skin than flesh. Its eyes went wild and whirred about in their deep sockets as it spread its legs out, and it became a profane angel of suckers and featherless wings. Its beak lay at the juncture of its limbs and was broad enough to snap a man in half. For all I knew, I wouldn’t be its first victim. Who knew what else lay beneath the water churning at the back of its body?

A tentacle whipped out, slapping my legs from under me, and I rolled with the motion and landed on my knees. The broken cement was hard on my joints, and I would have bruises down my legs, but they would be a small price to pay for not dying. It slapped down at the ground where I would have been had I not tucked my body in and let my shoulders take the brunt of my momentum. Bits of rock and dirt flew up from the impact of the cuttlefish’s tentacle, and the surrounding concrete cracked and spit up small sprays of fine grit. I sucked in a mouthful of white sand and accidentally trapped it against the roof of my mouth with my tongue, caught between spitting it out or swallowing it.

I swallowed and got back on my feet before the thing could strike at me again.

“I’ve got your back, boy,” Jonas shouted behind me. I didn’t dare glance back. I took it as a good sign he was alive enough to yell, and then I held in an alarmed scream when he began to fire off shotgun volleys into the cuttlefish’s gaping maw. “I’ll keep it distracted!”

“You’re going to get me killed,” I muttered, knowing he couldn’t hear me. When I was younger, that kind of mouthing off probably would’ve gotten me backhanded by my surrogate-father-of-sorts, Dempsey, but Jonas was a different breed of man. He was gentler and kinder by far than Dempsey, but then so was a dragon with an abscessed tooth. Still, just in case, I yelled back, “Just don’t shoot me!”

A torrent of ink shot out from somewhere on the cuttlefish’s body and nearly hit me. The sting of its fluid dissipated once it was dry, but the ink was milky and easily slid behind eyelids and into nostrils, making it difficult to see and breathe. It also turned the ground into a slippery mess. My boot heels caught something jagged beneath the slick, which gave me some traction. Then I hit the rim of the wading pool, its rough gravelly edge angled slightly up, and that provided enough of a hard lip to steady my leap.

To my right, a scatter of buckshot blackened its frills, and for a brief moment, I thought Jonas would hit me as well, but his next volley smacked directly into the creature’s beak. I was in flight for less than a second and landed hard against the cuttlefish’s flanged body. Its skin was slippery, and I couldn’t find purchase, but when its eye rolled over to look at me as I slid across its length, I knew I had to strike quickly. Its tentacles threw shadows against the water and the ground as they folded back to grab me.

If it got hold of me again, there was a good chance it would slither back down to the wading pool and probably drown me in the muck. I would’ve liked to say I didn’t know how elfin tasted, but my father was a sick, sadistic bastard who’d gone out of his way to ensure that I experienced that particularly horrific delicacy. I didn’t imagine the cuttlefish was starving, as I’d been back then, but judging by the bits and pieces of animals floating in the murky water, it either had an eclectic palate or it just didn’t give a shit about what it ate.

I was going to go with the latter.

Its skin was too slick, and there was nothing I could grab. Working my hand beneath the lip of its head and body slowed my descent down its side but left me open to its tentacles. Desperate, I sunk my knife into its eye and dug down deep in an effort to anchor myself, but my arm was nearly jerked out of its socket when I came to a screeching halt.

“Don’t shoot!” I screamed back at Jonas, but the cuttlefish’s writhing turned me around, and its body dipped back down into the filthy water. My boots skimmed a bit of debris, and my toe came back up wet and covered in a sticky green film. “Iesu. Why ask me to help you on a job if you’re just going to kill me? Why not just shoot me back where my cat could eat my corpse?”

The tentacles slapped at my back and legs, nearly dislodging me, but I hung on tight and dug my boot heels into the edge of its frills. The slice in its eye gave me something to hold on to, so I plunged my hand past the cut, looking for anything to grab. I found it—a cluster of connective tissue that squished a bit through my fingers when I grabbed it. Where the cut didn’t get a reaction, my grabbing at its innards did. The cuttlefish spasmed beneath me. Its limbs began a furious dance to dislodge me, and one tip caught me across the ribs and found every single bruise forming along my torso from where I’d hit the fence.

I raised my knife to slice at it again, and that’s when I noticed that Jonas had a bazooka.

Or it could have been a rocket launcher. I was never clear on the difference, and at that point, it didn’t really matter. Jonas became a blur running toward me, and then all I saw was a flash of the neighborhood, because the monster was writhing beneath me, and I was forced to ride its body as though it were a bucking mechanical bull in a cowboy bar. Tightening my legs seemed like a good idea until I heard Jonas shout my name.

“Jump loose!” he shouted.

Jumping loose was not an option. I had my arm tangled up through the cuttlefish’s tiny brain and its eyeball, beginning my own version of yum pla muk minus the lime juice, the fish sauce, and all the vegetables. A second later I discovered I really had no choice, because there was a large kaboom with enough concussive force to rattle the few remaining windows of the school building next to the pool and I was once again flying through the air.

Luckily for me there was a rusted wrought iron fence to catch me when I landed.

My pants were on fire, and I’d lost my knife. I also appeared to have lost a shoe, but what was most concerning me at that moment was the length of wrought-iron piercing through my ribs. The fence was at a slant, and I’d caught it at an incredibly wrong angle. My legs dangled a few inches off of the ground, and every effort I made to get loose only moved me down the iron spike.

The pain was both incredible and familiar—a gut-wrenching, spine-curling agony that stretched through every single nerve of my body as my elfin blood reacted to the iron cutting through my flesh. Flakes of rust were being caught up in my blood, or maybe it just felt that way. Within a few breaths of being hung up on the fence, my heart burned as though plunged into a vat of molten rock.

I knew the iron wouldn’t kill me, but it would certainly make me wish I’d died back there on the twitching cuttlefish, waltzing alongside its death throes. Throwing up hurt even more, but I did it anyway, unable to hold back the instinctive reaction to the iron in me.

The chunks of cooked cuttlefish smacking the ground like sacks of wet cement only made matters worse.

I was suddenly no longer hungry for either the Mexican corn or the savory goodness of spiced shredded pork over crispy sliced potatoes. If I’d landed a few inches to the left, the wrought iron would’ve pierced my stomach. As it was I was fairly certain my liver was going to have to find one of its lobes in the area of my abdomen. For an elfin, the puncture itself wasn’t a fatal wound, but the iron—the fucking iron—would be the death of any other in my race if it stayed in too long.

Lucky for me—if anyone could even stretch the truth and call it luck—I’d built up a pretty good immunity to Earth’s most poisonous metal.

“Hold on, kid,” Jonas said when he appeared at my side. His massive hands were under my back in an instant, taking the pressure off of my legs. “Grit your teeth. I’m going to pull you free.”

I had carried iron under the skin of my back for countless decades—swirls of filigree and bars thick enough to leave a pair of black pearl dragon wings etched across my shoulder blades and on either side of my spine. It’d been a while since those pieces had been removed, but their memory remained. The fencing wasn’t stuck to my flesh like the dragon wings, but it still hurt like fucking hell.

I clenched my jaw, but my stomach still tried to empty itself for a second time all over Jonas’s back. It is a pity I had nothing in me but the cup of coffee we’d had before doing the job, because if anybody deserved to be thrown up on, it was Jonas for bringing out a bazooka and firing on me and the cuttlefish.

“What were you thinking?” I gasped and ground my teeth when he yanked me off of the shaft’s flared end. “I was on the damned thing. And where the fuck did you get a bazooka?”

“I had it in the back of the truck. I use it sometimes when I go after nightmares. I figured it couldn’t hurt this time around.” He made a face—a halfway apology through grimaces and sucking at his teeth. “Guess I forgot how powerful the thing is. One last pull and you’ll be free.”

“Good,” I spat out. “Because as much as I love you, I’m going to kick your damned ass.”

Jonas stopped his tugging and stared down at me, his soulful brown eyes welling with emotion. “Trust you to tell me you love me for the first time while I’m yanking you off of a wrought-iron fence.”

“You gave me my first chocolate,” I reminded him. “But I’m still going to kick you in the balls, especially if you don’t hurry up.”

The last few inches were a horrific test of my willpower and the strength of my jaw. I felt the moment my body was free of the iron shaft—a wave of jangled relief passed underneath my skin, and my spine unclenched, willing to let go of the memories of screws and bolts through my shoulder blades and the slide of twisted barbs through my flesh. Laying me down on the cement as gently as he could, Jonas crouched by my side and offered me a mouthful of water from a bottle he’d brought with him. A long shadow fell across both of us, cast down from the flickering streetlamp I’d narrowly avoided in my flight. I reached for my remaining knife and half yanked it out from the sheath tied to my thigh.

“Hey, mister.” A little kid of indeterminate sex and dubious cleanliness held out a smoking chunk of our practically thoroughly cooked cuttlefish. “Are you going to eat all of this? Or can me and my friends take some of it home?”