- Age: Early 20s
- Species: Human
- Weapons: Pistol, sharp tongue, honestly, growing migraine, airborne zombie virus
- Special Attack: Truth-telling
- Has outsmarted countless zombies & political enemies
- Has a huge digital audience
- Knows her way around a firearm
- A chronic case of retinal Kellis-Amberlee
- No real powers to speak of
- Age: 16
- Species: Human
- Weapons: Her wolf, Minna
- Special Attack: Using the forest to her advantage
- Can communicate with the trees
- Accompanied by her loyal wolf
- Can summon fire spirits
- Young and inexperienced
- No combat training or weapons to speak of
By Seanan McGuire
Again, the fall; again, the sound of a bell being struck somewhere in the deep distance that technically shouldn’t exist, since nothing else did. My feet struck home on another infinite, featureless plain. That was, under the circumstances, almost a good thing: it meant I was still standing. It was also a bad thing. It meant I was still a long damn way from home.
A mom purse. That woman—that Katherine Katt-Martini—had been carrying a mom purse, and she had been standing so close to me, and her world wasn’t infected. I had been hoping that anyone who lost got returned to their own world, safe and sound and undamaged, but I hadn’t really believed it, had I? If I had, I would have just stopped fighting and let this fucked-up dream carry me home. Now…
I knew I was real. That meant there was at least a chance everyone I saw here was real as well. If they were real, which was worse? Sending them home with Kellis-Amberlee running through their veins and preparing for another apocalyptic coming-out day, or dropping them into a sunken void that never ended, where they could fall forever?
“Fuck,” I muttered. There was no good answer here. There was only the truth, and the truth was that I couldn’t let it matter. I needed to get home. I needed to get back to Shaun before he decided that I’d been taken by something more believable than a cosmic entity with a Mortal Kombat fetish—the CDC, maybe, or some other faction of the government—and went to get me back.
He’d die if he tried to recover me alone. He might die even if he brought backup. If Shaun died, I would be forced to burn down the world as an expression of my grief. And that meant being the last man standing. That meant making it home.
Almost as if the thought had summoned my next challenge, a soft ringing noise suffused the landscape, and the vast nothingness began to change. Not subtly, either. One moment, it was a featureless plain stretching from here to the horizon in all directions. The next, a forest was springing into existence all around, enclosing my sightline in trees.
“What the actual fuck?” I demanded. “How the hell is there a forest here?”
It is a weapon, said the voice that wasn’t a voice, the one that commanded battle to begin.
I tilted my head back and glared at the sky. “Was there a registration form I was supposed to fill out for this extracurricular activity in which I did not ask to be enrolled? Because the first asshole got a giant alien horse, and mom-purse lady got the heron from hell, and now you’re putting me up against someone with a forest. If your definition of ‘weapon’ is this broad, I should have backup.” I should have had Shaun. He would have loved this. Traveling to strange new worlds and yelling at people? Love.
Instead, I was alone and scared and surrounded by someone else’s trees.
The sky did not reply. There was a rustle from somewhere behind me, as of someone moving through the foliage. I spun around, grateful that at least the ground was still featureless and smooth, not muddy and mossy and filled with bugs. My new opponent might have been allowed to bring a fucking forest—and if I got a look at this tournament’s rule book, someone was getting kicked—but they hadn’t been allowed to make the situation entirely unfair.
There, half-concealed within the greenery, was a girl who looked like she was more dirt than skin, her face open and curious, her hand resting on the back of what was either the world’s largest husky or an honest-to-fuck wolf. I took a step backward, stopping when my back hit the rough surface of the tree behind me. I spared a moment’s irritated thought for the unfairness of it all. A forest and a wolf, while I had a gun, sunglasses, and a headache.
If I ever start to think the world is fair, I may just have to ask Shaun to shoot me again.
“Hi,” I shouted. “Can you hear me? Can you understand me?” If the giant with the horse had been able to understand me, I was pretty sure the ordinary-sized girl with the wolf would be able to, but I wasn’t taking any chances. Chances get people killed.
Now, declared the voice from everywhere and nowhere, you fight.
I showed the sky my middle finger. “Fuck you.”
“You follow the god of Miriam,” said the girl, sounding both surprised and pleased by this sudden point of commonality.
I turned to blink at her, aware that she couldn’t see my eyes, and actually appreciating that thin sliver of privacy. Living life behind sunglasses can mean a lot of people thinking that I’m cold or unfeeling because they can’t pick up on the subtleties of my expression. Sometimes that’s annoying. More often, it’s an advantage.
“Who?” I asked blankly. Then I raised my hands, palms out, showing her that I was not a threat. “Never mind. If your day has been anything like mine has been, you’ve been running into a lot of strangers and being ordered to fight them. And you’ve been succeeding, one way or another, or you wouldn’t be here with me. Is that close?”
The girl cocked her head, almost as if she was listening to something I couldn’t hear. I’m used to that—people who aren’t on my team’s bandwidth can neither hear nor communicate through my earcuff—but it raised a pang of jealous homesickness in me all the same. I missed my people. I missed Shaun. I didn’t know how long I’d been gone. He had to know I was missing by now.
He had to be losing his mind.
“People have been appearing in the wood,” she said finally. “The trees guide me to them, but we haven’t fought. The first followed me to safety. The second…” Her face fell, sorrow showing through the grime and the strange tattoos I was starting to make sense of. “She had been very hurt before she came here. She died. I… I could not prevent it.”
I wanted to feel bad for the unknown dead woman. I really did. Sadly, all I could muster was a thin veil of relief. This girl understood what death was. I wasn’t about to destroy the innocence of a child.
“All right,” I said. “Do you know what sickness is? Do you have plague here?”
Her frown was brief and sharp. “The wood is not tainted. She died of her injuries.”
“If I bleed here, if I die here, the wood will be tainted.”
The frown returned. This time, it lingered. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, I’m sick.” One good thing about the tree cover: despite the headache I was already nurturing, it was dim enough for me to lower my sunglasses and let the girl see my eyes.
Kellis-Amberlee is a clever disease. It likes to linger. When it can, it will create reservoirs in the body, hanging out there in its live state, always ready to break free. Lucky me, I may be the only person in the world to develop retinal Kellis-Amberlee twice. My pupils never contract. Locking eyes with me is like getting into a staring contest with a shark.
The girl hissed. “Demon,” she breathed.
“No,” I corrected, pushing my glasses back where they belonged. “Human. But… sick. I have a disease. It’s in my blood, and it’s in my breath, and if you come any closer, it’ll be in your blood, and in your breath. I’m not trying to hurt you. I don’t control it. I didn’t choose it, and I don’t want it, and I can’t stop it from spreading.”
“Is there no cure?” asked the girl unsteadily. “Magic…”
I wanted to laugh. Of course there was magic. She’d brought an entire forest and a giant wolf with her. Naturally, magic was involved. Because my day needed to make even less sense. “There isn’t any magic where I come from. Maybe you could do… magic… to keep yourself safe, but I’d just get sick again, and this isn’t a disease that reinfects gently.” I could spontaneously amplify, and wouldn’t that be fun? I’ve always wanted to eat my loved ones. Or, wait, no.
“Will you die?” asked the girl.
“No, but you might, if you get any closer.” I looked at her as steadily as I could. “This disease was supposed to be a blessing. It was supposed to make it so people wouldn’t die. Instead, it made it so that the dead got up and walked around, and hurt the living. If you get close enough for me to breathe on you, and your magic doesn’t have a cure, you will get sick, you will die, and then you will come back to life. And you won’t be yourself anymore.”
The girl took a step back as the wolf growled. “Why are you saying these things?”
“Because they’re true, and I don’t want them to happen.” She was just a kid. Why did she have to be a kid? This would have been so much easier if she’d been my age, or older, like Mom Purse. “Look, kid, just walk away, okay? Don’t fight me. Don’t make me fight you. Don’t risk everything you’ve got for whatever bullshit this—” I waved, intending to indicate the featureless plain, and really just indicating the trees, “—is. Please.”
“I don’t want to fight you,” she said.
“So don’t,” I said. “Go.”
She gave me one more slow, assessing look, hand still resting on the wolf’s back. Then, as one, they faded into the trees, and I was alone.
I pinched the bridge of my nose with one hand. “I would murder someone for a can of Coke,” I muttered.
Battle ended, declared the voice from nowhere.
The forest disappeared, taking the featureless plain with it. This, at least, I was getting used to. I dropped into the dark, once again yelling all the way down. The biggest question I had seemed fated to go unanswered until I landed:
Who the hell had won?