A piercing howl rang out through the field, rattling the trees. The blob creature shuddered and a crack opened at its center. Ben’s arm shot out. Sarah holstered her gun, dropped to her knees and grabbed his hand. Toby’s head turned from side to side, searching the air for the origin of the sound.
Two more howls, overlapping the first, vibrating at a dissonant frequency. Sarah felt queasy. Toby yelped and flopped onto his chest. The blob retreated back into the trees as Sarah dragged Ben out of it. He tried to stand and dropped. His left shin was broken, his foot twisted in entirely the wrong direction.
The howling stopped. Ben turned to Toby, who looked as confused as he was.
NOT TOBY, the dog thought.
Out in the field, a tall man stepped up onto a grassy knoll, revealing himself. He wore a black leather duster with flaps over the shoulders, like you might see at a renaissance faire or in a pirate movie, and he had long dreadlocks, down past his shoulders, which waved gently in the wind.
“Your mom was right,” Sarah said. “Here come the pervs.”
The man put two fingers to his lips. Fweep! Three huge dogs, two black, one white, trotted up next to him. Shadow tentacles whipped around on their backs.
“Oh shit.” Ben muttered unconsciously. Toby’s tail wagged briefly.
Fweep fweep! The man whistled. The dogs bolted out across the field, towards them. The man slowly, casually followed. Two of the dogs rushed past Ben, Sarah and Toby, straight into the woods. The third, the white one, stopped next to them. It was the biggest dog Ben had ever seen, with jagged claws, long whiskers, piercing red eyes and curved fangs poking out of its mouth. Wait.
“Is that a wolf?” he said. Sarah reached for her gun again.
Suddenly, the blob of mud and leaves burst from the trees, slithering across the grass and recoiling when it got close to the white wolf. Tentacles rose like cobras off the wolf’s back and began stabbing at the blob in quick, staccato bursts, much as Toby had done earlier. The other two wolves emerged from the trees and did the same. Fwip fwip fwip fwip fwip.
The creature was surrounded. Each time it chose a direction to flee in, it was met with snarling wolf jaws. The flurry of tentacles chipped away at the mud and leaves, and the blob began to shrink.
TOBY KILL, Toby thought, hobbling over on his three good legs, getting in there and stabbing at the blob along with the three wolves. TOBY KILL. TOBY EAT.
Sarah gripped Ben under the armpits and dragged him a little further from the action. The man in the duster stopped next to them. He winked at Sarah.
“Keep it in the circle!” He gave three quick whistles. “Come on, now!”
The blob creature was much smaller now. Most of the leaves were gone, and a bit of grey flesh had been exposed beneath the mud. Toby and the wolves advanced on it, increasing the pace of their attack. The shadow around Toby grew more opaque.
TOBY KILL. STINK MUD. TOBY KILL.
More mud flaked away. The creature thrashed and rolled. The skull of the deer it had eaten, one antler still attached, popped out and rolled up to Ben’s feet. He kicked it away.
The blob creature flipped onto its back, revealing a grey fleshy surface, like an uncooked liver, and a round mouth encircled with pointy teeth. It looked like a leech, but about four feet long and two feet wide. The mouth hissed.
Fweep! The man whistled and the wolves dove in, chomping down on the giant leech. The creature made one final lurch towards the trees, then went limp. The wolves ripped its flesh away in thick chunks, chewing, swallowing, their faces drenched in purple-black goo. Toby glanced at Ben, gauging his reaction, then also dug in. Ben could feel the leech’s life force flow into him, fixing his leg. A sharp twinge of pain hit him in his shin.
“Shit!” he said, “Sarah, you gotta set my bone, it’s not healing right!”
Sarah nodded. She knelt down by his leg and held his shin with both hands.
“Sorry.” she said.
She cracked the bone into place. Ben screamed and fell back, laying on the ground. He listened to the gruesome sounds of the wolves eating the big slug, and watched the leaves flutter in the trees above him. The pain faded. He sat up and wiggled his toes. All better. Toby put his back leg down. He was all healed up too.
“Your superpowers are disgusting.” Sarah said.
She stood and helped him up. He instinctively went easy on his left leg, but it didn’t really hurt. They both remembered the weird guy standing next to them. He was watching the wolves eat with great interest.
“Umm, excuse me,” Sarah went over to him, got into his eyeline. “Hi there. Who are you?”
He reached into his duster and handed her a business card. “That your inugami?”
The man gestured to Toby, who was up on his hind paws, his entire head deep inside the leech carcass.
“Toby’s with me.” Ben picked up the Onislayer and brushed grass off of it. “Are those wolves?”
The man nodded, smiling. “Toby. May I?”
He approached the wolves feasting on the demon leech. Generally, when people asked Ben about “the inugami”, they tried to murder him and take Toby right after, so Ben followed him, Onislayer at the ready. The man tore off a piece of meat and held it in front of Toby, leading him away from the carcass. He put his hand up and whistled. Toby sat.
The man held the floppy hunk of flesh right in front of the dog’s nose, paused, then chucked it straight up in the air. He clapped his hands together.
Voosh! A tentacle shot off Toby’s back, snaring the piece of meat like a frog’s tongue. He guided it into his own mouth and chewed.
“My man!” The guy kneeled and pet Toby behind the ears. “He’s very good. You’ve trained him well.”
“Thanks. I did.” Ben said, unconvincingly. He wondered if Tatsuya taught Toby those tricks. Tatsuya never had the kakawari, he and Toby were never close. Maybe his dad? Or his great-grandfather. Toby was about five hundred years old, it could’ve been anybody.
The guy held out his hand. “Marcus Alcindor.”
“Ben.” Ben said, shaking it. “You have inugami wolves.”
“I do.” Marcus whistled three times. The wolves looked up from their kill then lined up next to Marcus. One of the black ones had a bit of leech flesh dangling from its mouth.
“This is Jordan, Pippen, and Luc Longley.” The white wolf, slightly bigger than the others, burped.
Ben nodded and leaned over to Sarah. “Cause he’s white.”
“I get it.” Sarah squinted at the business card then handed it to Ben. “This says you’re a professional demon hunter. What are you doing here, Mr. Alcindor?”
“Hunting demons. Hey!” Jordan tried to snatch the meat hanging off Pippen’s snout. The wolves growled at each other. “No! Go eat!” The wolves grunted, heads down, and turned back towards the leech. Marcus pulled out a handkerchief and wiped his hand.
“I tracked this sucker all the way down here from McHenry. It’s been feeding its way along the Metra tracks. Left a lot of deer bones.”
“You been doing this long?” Sarah said.
“Decade or so. Used to be more of a hobby. Me and the wolves would go out and find one or two a month. Demon population’s picked up a lot in the last year. Damn things are everywhere.”
“Yeah, uhh, pretty weird, right?” Ben said. Toby walked in circles to keep the wolves from sniffing his butt. Apparently, not taking part in standard canine butt-sniffing was a Toby thing, not an inugami thing. “I’m actually something of a demon hunter myself. Pro bono. I don’t like charging for it.”
“Your loss.” Marcus said. The wind picked up. He looked in the direction of it. Sniffed. “Call me next time you guys find something too big for one dog. I’ll come help. We can trade tips.”
Sarah frowned. “Well, I don’t-“
“Yeah, totally!” Ben said. “We can always use more people, right?”
A pocket of air escaped from the dead leech with an audible fart sound, and the carcass deflated a bit.
“Maybe we should shove that back into the forest.” Sarah said.
“Eh,” Ben shrugged. “Anyone who can actually see it has probably seen much worse. What do you-“
He turned. Marcus and his wolves were gone.
“Heh. He does that too.” Ben smiled real big. “That guy’s really cool, huh?”
Sarah grunted noncommittally. She walked up the hill Marcus had come down from, to look out at the parking lot, where she saw Marcus and his wolves running towards an unmarked white van. Ben knelt down and pet Toby.
“Where’d you learn those commands? Huh?” He attempted to whistle and failed pretty miserably. Toby yawned and burped. Big night.
Down in the lot, Marcus opened the back of the van. Two of the wolves hopped in. One of the black ones was sniffing something. Marcus grabbed it by the scruff of the neck and shoved it roughly into the van, slamming the door behind it. Sarah got a good look at his license plate before he drove off.
“Do you think I could pull off a coat like that?” Ben said, tugging at his mud-soaked hoodie.
“That depends.” Sarah said. “Are you a steampunk vampire?”
Sunlight beamed in through the glass block window and straight onto Ashley Ocampo’s face. She groaned and turned away. She opened her eyes. What time was it? She checked her phone. 10 AM. She didn’t remember going to bed last night. She was sitting at her desk, doing her homework, also doing (ugh) Taylor’s homework, and then–
10 AM?! Ash shot out of the bed, pulled on pants and grabbed her backpack. She was late for school! She was hopping and putting on a sock as she opened the door.
Cartoons blared on the TV. Taylor was sprawled out on the couch. Sophie was on the chair next to her, watching upside down, kicking her feet.
“Why aren’t you guys at school?” Ash said.
Taylor snorted. “It’s Saturday, dingus.”
“Saturday…” Ash tried to think. That couldn’t be right.
“Nice job on my homework, by the way. The teacher said it was a big improvement over my usual stuff.”
Ash looked down at her backpack she was holding and pulled out her notebook. It was all done, but the last few answers seemed off. Like they weren’t in her handwriting.
“We’ve got that big essay due next week, so keep it up!” Taylor laughed a loud honk, like the noise a donkey or a seal makes.
“Sophie!” Mrs. Greco stomped in the room, frazzled. “I told you to clean up the dining room! There’s paper and crayons everywhere!”
Sophie sighed, somersaulted off the chair, and headed for the other room.
“Hey Mrs. Greco, was I…” Ash felt like she was still asleep. She had a headache in the back of her head. “Did I go out yesterday?”
“You went to school, you came home, you did your homework, and you went to bed. Barely said a word. I wish there were more days like that.” Mrs. Greco muttered. “Are you even ready for your class?”
Right! Lucha class. Ash had private lessons with Sensei Tatsuya on Saturday mornings. She turned to go back in her room and change. As she did, Mrs. Greco gasped.
“Sophie! God damn it! Where did you get those?!”
Sophie walked back in the room with her arms full of books — Celebrity tell-alls, romance novels, self-help through real estate. Trashy mom books. They all had crayon on them.
“I ran out of paper.” Sophie said.
“You–” Mrs. Greco grabbed Sophie’s arm.
“Ow!” Sophie cried, dropping the books. Crayons scattered on the floor
“You do not go in my room! Do you understand?” She dragged the girl into the kitchen.”You do not take other peoples’ things! Damn it! How many times…”
Ash’s head throbbed. She felt a burning sensation along the back of her skull, from her neck to the top of her head. Her hair shifted.
“What’s wrong with you?” Taylor said, staring at her.
Ash slammed her door.
“Moonsault Double Foot Stomp!” Sensei Tatsuya shouted.
Ash did a backflip off the top rope, landing with her feet together on the mats. There wasn’t enough room for an entire wrestling ring in the Lucha Dojo, but Tatsuya had put together one corner that the kids could practice aerial moves on.
“Hai! Good! Keep your feet straight, you don’t want to twist an ankle on the landing.”
Ash smiled, bowed, and climbed back to the top of the corner piece.
“Let me think…Shooting Star Elbow Drop!”
Ash leapt off the rope, did a backflip in midair, and landed elbow-first on the mats. Had an opponent been lying where she landed, they would not have gotten up after that.
“Aha! Good! You are improving each day, niña!” He helped her to her feet. “I have seen real wrestlers struggle to do these moves! Keep it up and you will be a real luchadora! You could go pro!”
“Sensei…” Ash said. “I need advice.”
“Mrs. Greco, my, uhh, caregiver. She’s being…” Ash wasn’t sure how to put it. “It’s bad, and I need to fix it, but I’m worried that trying to fix it will make it worse. I don’t know. Forget it.” She turned away.
“Niña…Ash…” Tatsuya knelt down in front of her. “If someone is hurting you–“
“No. Not me. She’s not…nobody’s hitting anybody. She’s just mean. She has one real daughter, who sucks, and doesn’t have to do anything. Me and Sophie do all her homework and chores. I think we’re just there so Mrs. Greco can have money.”
“You are sure of this?”
Ash nodded. “I’m angry all the time. You know? My mind goes blank and I just want to scream and smash everything. I think I might be going crazy. I’m trying to stay true to the Bushido, but it’s hard.”
Tatsuya nodded. “A code is most important when it is hard. Otherwise, it is just words. I know a police officer. A good one. She can–“
“No!” Ash said firmly. “No police. They’ll just move me to a different home. I don’t want to lose this place. I hate St. Felix’s, but I can’t lose the lucha dojo. Please.” Ash looked like she might cry. “I don’t have anything else. I need to fight.”
“You have the warrior’s spirit,” Tatsuya stood and walked over to the mini-fridge behind the counter. “I too had it when I was young. I started fighting in matches when I was only a few years older than you are. I was big for my age. I was good. My father did not approve. He wanted me to take over the family business. You want a vitamin water?”
Ash nodded. “What was the family business?”
Tatsuya tossed her a bottle and took two for himself. “Er…’Pet Care’. I had no interest, but I could not shame my father, so I was forced to wrestle in secret. He wanted me to be an ordinary man. I became more than a man.”
“A samurai.” Ash said.
“A dragon.” Tatsuya clicked on the light above the glass case containing his luchador mask. The burning incense smoke around it glowed in the lamp light.
“Mascara de Dragón contra El Diablo Guapo! Duk duk duk!” The sensei punched the air in rapid succession, making punching sounds with his mouth. “K.O.! Fuera de combate!”
He spun, twisting around the counter and rolling onto the mats. “Mascara de Dragón contra Super Juan!”
Tatsuya grabbed his own bicep and struggled against it, as though he were wrestling himself. Ash snorted. Vitamin water dripped out of her nose.
“El Oso Grande! Mil Mendosa! Angelo Atomico!” Tatsuya rolled, kicked the air, flipped to his feet, doing a sort of mock battle dance against multiple opponents. “Eventually, they called me up to big leagues. America. Short notice, one of their guys ripped a tendon. Big money. Not really. Big money for me.”
He cracked open one of the vitamin waters and chugged it all in one go.
“So you went to America?”
“No.” Tatsuya crunched the plastic bottle between his hands. “I didn’t come to America until decades later. By then, fighting and tequila had taken most of my youth. I had to stay local for the family business.”
Ash was confused. “I thought you didn’t care about that.”
“I didn’t. But my father did.” Tatsuya tossed the smashed bottle towards the garbage can. He missed. “If a samurai is unwilling to sacrifice, they have already lost. A samurai fights for what they believe in. No matter the cost.”
He grabbed his second vitamin water off the counter and twisted it open. “If, in the future, you want to talk to the police…Tell me.”
Ash nodded. She pointed at the clock. “2:30. Big Ben coming soon?”
“Big Ben cancelled his Saturday lesson. He has a date tonight.”
Ash made a face. “Gross.”
“Yes.” Tatsuya said solemnly. “It is gross.”