Three different cats bolted from the room as Ash opened the door to St. Felix’s. She was still in her lucha uniform. Her backpack was overflowing with textbooks. Someone was watching a sitcom in the other room — one of the bad ones, where a hidden audience bursts out laughing between every sentence. Mrs. Greco closed the door behind Ash and locked it.
“Homework, then bed.” Mrs. Greco said.
“Yeah, yeah.” Ash switched shoulders with her backpack. It always felt extra heavy after lucha class.
“Don’t get smart with me.” The studio audience laughed.
Ash found Sophie in the dining room, coloring with markers on looseleaf paper. Sophie was five. She’d only been at St. Felix’s for a few months. Her dad was out there, somewhere, but he hadn’t come to visit yet. The girl beamed when she saw Ash.
“Ash!” Sophie said. “I drew you a picture!”
She handed Ash a piece of paper. As the center stood a wobbly stick figure with no body, arms and legs growing out of its head. Around the edges, a bunch of eyes and teeth and horns.
“Is that me?”
“Yeah!” Sophie said. “You’re fighting seven dinosaurs!”
“Seven!” Ash laughed. “Holy moly!”
Sophie giggled. “That one’s a stegosaurus, and that one’s a triceratops, and that-“
Mrs. Greco walked in and gasped. “Are those the dry erase markers? What did I tell you about using those?! Those are for the board!”
Sophie got quiet. Her smile faded. She looked down.
“If I have to buy those one more time, I’ll-“
“Hey,” Ash said, “Mrs. Greco, she didn’t-“
“Homework!” Mrs. Greco shouted, pointing towards Ash’s room. “Now!”
Ash made a fist. She took a deep breath. In her rage, she ran through all the things she could say, found nothing that would end well for either her or Sophie. She turned and stomped into the TV room.
Taylor sprawled across the couch, watching TV. She was a couple years older than Ash, but still in the same grade. She had an ice cream bar melting in her hand. She noticed a drop running down her arm, and licked it, then each of the fingers on that hand, making a popping sound with her mouth at the end of every one. Ash grunted in disgust.
“How was nerd karate?” Taylor said, without looking away from the TV.
Ash stopped before going in her room. “It’s not…it’s a lucha dojo. I’m a samurai luchador.”
“That’s two different things.” Taylor said. “That doesn’t even make sense.”
“It doesn’t make sense how fat your butt is.” Ash said. The studio audience roared with laughter.
“Hey!” Taylor threw a pillow at Ash. Ash dodged it.
“Girls!” shouted Mrs. Greco from the other room.
“She started it!” said Taylor.
Ash opened the door to her room, went inside, and slammed it. The framed picture of her parents on her desk slapped down on its face. She picked it back up and held in the urge to cry when she saw them. She missed her mom and dad. She hated this place. She wanted to go home. But she was sick of crying.
She looked up at the wall, a thick slab of gray paint on brick. Street light glowed from the block window. She ripped off a piece of scotch tape and stuck Sophie’s picture to the wall.
Ash shook her head. “Seven dinosaurs.”
She sat down at the desk and pulled out her math homework. Fractions. Ok. She was good at fractions. This wouldn’t be so–
“A samurai…” said a woman’s voice. “What a noble pursuit for a child.”
Ash looked around. No one else was there. Was that the TV?
“In my youth, samurai were very well respected.” the voice said. “Pillars of the community.”
“Who’s talking right now?”
“A friend.” The sound was coming from the heating vent under the window. Ash squinted at it. Dark inside. “Your best friend. I’m here to give you a gift. Come closer, little samurai.”
“No thank you, vent voice.” Ash said, looking away. “I have homework.”
Her door opened, and Mrs. Greco stormed in without knocking. She slapped a stack of papers and books onto Ash’s desk.
“You need to do Taylor’s homework, too.”
“What?!” Ash said. “Why can’t she do it?”
“We’ve got to keep everyone’s grades up or we lose state funding. You’re better at school. This will be faster.”
“That’s not fair! You can’t just make me-“
“How about this, Ashley?” Mrs. Greco said, leaning in close. “You do this…or you lose your little wrestling classes.”
“No.” Ash said. She felt the rage build up inside her again. The pencil in her hand snapped.
“You think I want to drive out to the suburbs five days a week? This is the deal.” Over Mrs. Greco’s shoulder, Ash saw Taylor in the doorway, sucking on the ice cream bar’s stick, looking real smug. She turned and walked away.
“You live in my house, you eat my food, you gotta pull your weight. Homework.” Mrs. Greco pointed at the stack of books. “Then bed.”
She left, shutting the door. Ash smacked the stack of books off her desk. She rubbed her forehead, closed her eyes. She tried to remember the Eight Tenants. Justice. Courage. Comp–
“It is not right, the way she treats you.” the woman’s voice said. “I can give you the power to fight her. Real power. No more ‘home work’. No more sadness. That woman will never hurt you again.”
“Who are you?” Ash looked up at the vent. “Are you real?”
“A samurai should not live here, like this. I offer you power and purpose. All you have to do is come closer.”
In the other room, Sophie started crying loudly. Mrs. Greco shouted at her. Ash stood.
“You can protect her. All the pain will go away. Come closer.”
Ash walked up to the vent. She peered inside. There was nothing there.
Poof! A cloud of green gas hit her in the face. It burned! She coughed, waving her hand, stumbling back into her desk chair, knocking it over. As she rubbed her eyes, she saw the vent open briefly, then close. Nothing came out, but she heard the nothing skitter down the wall and across the floor behind her. There was a buzz inside head, a high-pitched hum in her ears, fire inside her nose. She looked at her fists, where she’d rubbed her eyes. They were covered in green.
She tried to run, but she found that she could not move. She tried to scream, but she could only whisper. “H…Help…”
“Do not be afraid, little samurai,” said the woman’s voice, now below her. “All is as it should be. You’re being reborn.”
Ash felt something rub against her leg, delicately, then wrap around it.
“Ascending to a higher plane of being.” The creeping feeling went higher, and higher, up Ash’s back and onto her shoulder. “You will be strong. Strong enough to protect everyone you care about. Your parents would be so proud of you.”
Ash could see it, reflected in the glass on the picture of her parents. A woman’s head, with black eyes and sharp teeth, tendrils of hair in the shape of insect legs. The hair wrapped around Ash’s neck.
“What…do you want?” Ash said.
“For you to hold still.”
The head snarled and bit down hard on the back of the girl’s neck.
Fergie the greyhound barked furiously at a goose. The goose, which wore a yellow raincoat and matching floppy hat, didn’t react since it was made of stone. Ben laughed.
“I don’t think he’s a threat, Ferg.”
The other greyhound, Stoney, drooled as he panted, standing at Ben’s side. They were all the way around the block from the dogs’ apartment. Ben had decided to go left instead of right at the corner, to change up the walk a little, and Fergie was royally spooked by all the new sights and sounds. Stoney was his stoic, unflappable self, though a lot slower than Ben would like. He was getting old. Ben had added ten minutes to his daily schedule to account for Stoney going up and down the stairs. Speaking of…
“C’mon, dogs. We gotta head back.”
Fergie gave up on the goose and stepped forward. Stoney didn’t.
“Let’s go, Stoney.” Ben tugged on the leash.
Stoney squatted to poop, smack in the middle of the sidewalk. He actually hadn’t gone yet, which was unusual for a greyhound and especially abnormal for Stoney. Ben whipped out a bag and slipped it over his hand.
Darkness burst forth from the dog’s bowels, a liquid nightmare, a colossal and nameless blasphemy against nature, endless in its torment and destruction, the likes of which Ben had never seen and would not soon forget. He and Fergie could only stare. When it was over, Stoney trotted past them and tugged the leash towards home. The loathsome puddle slowly expanded.
Ben frowned at the wildly insufficient plastic bag on his hand. He shoved it back in his pocket.
“Maybe it’ll rain.”
Libby the mini-dachshund scampered merrily down the sidewalk. She had just been to the groomers, where she had her nails clipped, her under-fluff trimmed, and her tail sculpted. She had pink bows on her ears. A group of three tough biker dudes approached, heading for the dive bar on the corner. One of them glanced at Libby.
“It’s, uhh, it’s not my dog.” Ben mumbled, his voice deep. “They pay me.”
The bikers ignored him entirely. Once they were in the bar and out of sight, Ben knelt down to get a good picture of Libby. He and Kaylee had been sending each other cute dog pictures for the last couple of days. Hers were cuter, largely because she got assigned the little fluffy ones. Ben, the only male walker, usually got the big dogs with intestinal problems.
Libby sniffed the air. Ben lined up the perfect shot, backlighting her with the sun, finally putting his film degree to good use. Just as he was about to take the picture, he got a phone call. Unknown Caller, Unknown Number. He hit Ignore. Libby realized he was down by her, and she padded over, wagging. Ben lined up another good picture. The Dog Signal popped up on his phone.
“Ooh!” Ben said. He was excited to show off his new vehicle.
The unmarked sedan idled in the Forest Preserve parking lot. The park had closed an hour ago, so it was the only car there. Cicadas chirped. Wind rustled through all the trees. The three-story toboggan slide rattled. It had been locked up for a few years, and would likely remain so indefinitely. That thing was a death trap, a relic of a less safety-conscious era.
Jake sat in the driver’s seat, eating a hot dog. Sarah leaned in the passenger window. “Are you sure you don’t want to come with?”
Jake looked at her, chewing. The vrrrrrr of a small engine, like a fishing boat or a remote-control car, approached. Jake glanced in the rearview mirror. He rolled his eyes.
An olive green moped coasted into the lot and wobbled to a stop in front of Sarah. It had a big Windy City Waggers magnet on the front and a basket on the back. Toby sat in the basket, his face emotionless, but his paws were clutching the corners for dear life.
“What do you think?” Ben smiled like a kid on Christmas morning. He honked the horn. Deet deet!
“You bought a scooter.” Sarah said. Next to her, the windows on the sedan rolled up.
“It’s a moped! Isn’t it great?” Ben hefted Toby out of the basket and onto the asphalt. The dog stumbled on shaky legs towards the nearest tree. “The guy downstairs sold it to me for two hundred bucks! I didn’t get my motorcycle permit yet though, so don’t tell, uhh…you.”
“I thought you were gonna buy a car.”
“This is better than a car. It’s got a basket for Toby and a perfect place above the engine to shove this.” Ben removed the Onislayer. It made an ear-splitting screech as it scraped the scooter’s frame.
“What are you gonna do when it rains?”
“Wear a coat.”
“What about when it gets cold?”
“Wear a big coat.” Ben pointed at the car. “No Jake?”
“You…created a lot of paperwork last time.” Sarah said, choosing her words. “He’s taking tonight off and I’m gonna supervise so you don’t burn the forest down.”
Ben nodded. “Can I bring the moped?”
The forest was dark at night. The lights of the city faded behind the trees, and the constant drone of traffic was muffled to a soft hum. Toby walked from tree to tree along the trail, sniffing each with great interest. Sarah clicked her flashlight on periodically. Ben poked a few suspicious branches with the Onislayer, but none of them started on fire.
“What are we looking for?” Ben said.
“The locals over in Sauganash are reporting missing pets and tipped over garbage cans.” Sarah checked under a log. “It might be a coyote, but Animal Control thought the numbers were suspicious.”
“Animal Control knows about us?”
“They know to talk to me when there’s weird stuff.” Sarah shrugged. “You remain strictly off the record, dog walker.”
“Well, if it’s yokai we’ll find it, right Tobe? Oh, sorry.” He turned away. Toby grunted at him then lifted his leg again. Unlike most dogs, Toby refused to pee if someone was looking at him. Inugamis were special. Inugamis knew shame.
A branch cracked under Ben’s foot. He jumped.
“Yeah.” Ben shivered. “I used to ride bikes here when I was a kid. My mom always said I had to be out of the Forest Preserve the moment it got dark, cause that’s when the pervs come out and run around naked.”
Sarah laughed. “What, like witches?”
“That’s not a real thing?” Ben smiled. “There’s no naked pervs?”
“I mean…” Sarah was delighted when Ben stopped smiling. “There’s a camp site east of here. Middle-aged dudes in trucks, driving in circles, cruising for each other. But they ain’t hurting nobody. Actually one time, when I was on patrol, I picked up a schoolteacher for-“
Something rustled in the woods. They froze.
A deer stepped out from behind the trees, sniffing at a big pile of mud and leaves. It was a male deer, a stag, antlers and everything. Ben had never seen one with antlers in the Forest Preserve.
TOBY EAT, Toby thought.
“No,” Ben whispered.
“Is that a demon deer?” Sarah said.
The deer stopped sniffing and raised its head. Its ears darted around, the rest of it was completely still.
“I know there’s a good one. The…Kirin?” Ben said. “It appears when great rulers and heroes die. But that one has scales.”
“Well, maybe it-“
The pile of leaves and mud burst upwards and engulfed the deer. The animal cried out briefly, a high-pitched bleat, before its head was submerged. The leaves rustled, the mud undulated, and wet, slurping sounds echoed into the forest, broken sporadically by the crunching of bones. The muddy leaf pile flopped back to the ground, one deer bigger than before.
“I don’t think it’s the deer.” Ben said.
The leafy blob rushed towards them. Sarah and Toby dove to either side. Ben raised the Onislayer defensively.
Sluch! The weapon sunk partway into the creature. The mud around it sizzled, but seemed to absorb most of the effects. It continued oozing towards Ben. The leaves quivered, shaking audibly like a rattlesnake’s rattle. Ben could smell rot and waste and deer flesh in the mud.
“Tobyyyyy…” he whined. “Any day now…”
Toby sprung forward and bit at the mud, then hacked out what was in his mouth, disgusted.
STINK MUD, Toby thought. YUCK MUD.
“Kill it!” Ben shouted.
Shadows emerged around Toby. Sharp tendrils of black, translucent fur whipped up from his back. The tendrils all pointed at the mud pile and unleashed a flurry of quick stabs into the mud’s surface. Fwip fwip fwip fwip fwip fwip. Leaves tore and broke away, fluttering to the ground. The mud rippled.
The creature retreated just enough that Ben could free the Onislayer, but then it began encroaching again. Toby took a step back, continuing his barrage of shadow spikes. He growled. Sarah didn’t have a magic weapon, so she picked up a large branch and swung it at the thing. The mud pile absorbed the branch and grew slightly larger. Ben stumbled backwards into a tree. Sarah did the same.
“We need room to maneuver.” Sarah said, taking off into the forest. Ben took a deep breath and chased after her.
Toby held out until the mud pile was almost upon him then zoomed after the humans. The moment he left, the mud rushed in and filled his space.
Ben looked back. The creature was following them. The way it moved was vaguely animalistic, but it wasn’t so much running as lurching. It was like a walrus on land but much faster. Branches crunched and smaller trees fell in its path. Ben turned to watch where he was going half a moment before he ran into a tree.
He rolled out into the grassy field head-first, pain throbbing in his chest and shoulder. A full moon glowed upon the field, moonlight reflecting off the grass, picnic shelters and trash bins. Sarah turned back. She unclipped her gun from its holster and watched the trees. Toby stopped next to her, snorted, and reactivated his shadow form.
Ben looked up, spitting out grass and dirt. He reached around for the Onislayer and found it, flat on the ground next to him. He turned to Sarah.
“Guess we must’ve spooked it.”
Mud and leaves surged upwards on either side of him and smashed together, and Ben was buried alive in cold, wet darkness.