Chapter Four.

Chapter Four.

posted in: Serial Chapter | 0

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.”

Tatsuya grunted.

“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.”

Dog Walker II – Chapter Three

Dog Walker II – Chapter Three

posted in: Dog Walker II, News | 0

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.”

– READ MORE –

Chapter Three.

Chapter Three.

posted in: Serial Chapter | 4

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.

“What-“

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.”

“Don’t…”

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.

Ash screamed.

 

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.”

Stoney's got the wet poops.

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.

Looking good, girl!

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?”

“Absolutely not.”

 

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.

“You alright?”

“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 aren’t hurting anybody. 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!”

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.

Nothing happened.

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.

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