I ain’t one of those old men who’s afraid of new tech, and I’m proud to say that know my way around a smartphone with the best of them. But my phone is slippery in my hands with sweat and panic, and I’m swerving all over these country roads as I try to tap out Pierre’s number on the keypad. Not for the first time, I find myself lamenting the times when honest-to-goodness buttons were an actual thing.
Pierre picks up. “Hello?”
“Sorry to interrupt your ‘you time’ but we have a serious problem.”
“I saw Seb at the bar. He’s an old friend. And he’s with Nancy.”
“Nancy! Her name is Nancy. Seb’s dating her!” This was all so clear three seconds earlier when I was rehearsing it in my head. “She’s magic. I mean, she has magic. I had to use feta cheese to be safe!”
“What the…saying, Ben? Your recep…shit…cutting out. You on Mulligan Drive?”
I swing around a corner so sharply that the truck takes the turn on two wheels. It’s one hell of a landing and for a second I have to let go of the wheel to keep hold of the phone. “Fuck! Yes. I’m there. Yes.”
“Okay, so swing b…place and w—”
“NO! I can’t. Nancy’s following me, I know it. She must be able to smell Fred on me or smell magic from his spell or something. I mean, shit, I’m not a goddamn wizard, I don’t know how this works. And I definitely don’t want to lead her to you.”
Too late, I realise that’s exactly what I’m doing.
There’s a turning ahead, one that leads off the main road through a copse. It’s a narrow country lane that’ll take me out, away from the town, away from danger. I can buy some time out here to think.
I turn the wheel, crest a bump in the road, and all ahead is darkness and low-hanging trees. My nerves are all over the place.
“Okay,” Pierre says, “but who’s Nancy?”
“A SIREN, GODDAMN IT,” I shout, and then there’s a thump as something lands on the windscreen and I drop the phone. This thing is heavy, it’s pulsing; as it unfolds, it becomes clear that it’s the ass end of a recluse spider, and this particular spider is big enough to eat Macie.
I know. It’s not a classic observation and that kind of language doesn’t become me. But seriously. Think of the angry mother and father of the biggest spider you can imagine. Now imagine that this one ate both of them and was still hungry afterwards.
So I’m leaning away, despite the glass between us, and I’ve completely lost the phone, the road and the wheel. The world spins in ways it shouldn’t spin, and when I eventually come to a stop, the truck’s on its side in the bushes in a pile of smoke and twisted metal.
I got cuts, I got bruises, I got the shakes like you wouldn’t believe. But I’m still alive, and now my brain starts firing quicker than it’s fired in years. I don’t carry a gun in the car, more’s the pity, but in the back of the truck I keep a whole pile of farm tools accumulated through diligent years of never throwing anything away that looks like it might one day come in useful.
‘Course, none of them tools are in the back of the truck right now, but they’ll be here somewhere in the undergrowth, close to hand. If Nancy the Siren or Incy Wincy’s bear-sized cousin is still hanging around after all this jazz, I’m inclined to give them something to remember me by after they’re done running.
Everything’s silent and I lay still for a minute or two to see if I can hear movement outside. All there is is my own heavy breathing. Cautiously, I lift my head out of the door that’s now the ceiling and look around in all directions, starting with up.
Not all my luck is bad. The moon chooses that second to peep out from behind a cloud and silver beams strobe across the treetops. When they get halfway to me, something strobes back. There’s an ax lying in the grass not ten paces away, one I’ve owned for years. The head is rusty as hell, but as a weapon, it’s still heavy enough to count for something, and if I’m going to meet my maker, at least I’ll get to do it on my own terms.
It takes precious seconds to ease myself up and out of the cab, and with every noisy movement, I’m growing all the more desperate. Drop down, and sprint—or in this case, limp—over to where the axe is lying. It should be easy, but my best days are behind me, and it’s been one hell of a night.
“Things I do for you,” I growl, imagining Pierre wrapped up warm on his sofa, watching trashy reality shows. What I wouldn’t give to have him and Macie here right now.
One step, two steps. Movement in the grass around. Three steps, four steps. Crazy chittering in my ears. Five steps. Six. I wonder what they’ll find if I get eaten by a giant recluse. Will there be a husk, or will I just vanish in the night and end up a case on one of those ‘true mystery’ Crime + Investigation channel TV shows?
Seven, eight, nine, ten. I dive for the axe, grab the handle, but when I try to lift it, it’s weighed down and I can’t move it. I look up, breath caught in my throat.
Standing above me on their hind legs at a height of about two feet tall are two rats with beady eyes. They’re perched on the axe head, and are wearing small scraps of leather and cloth tied together around their fur. Both are carrying garden canes with small metal shards tied to the tips. As I watch, one of those rudimentary spears is levelled towards my cheek and the owner pokes me twice. The blade is completely blunt.
There’s a moment while they seem to be waiting for me to respond, and then the one who hasn’t yet moved speaks. It’s human language, just about, though human language as spoken by someone gargling with a hedge in their mouth.
I am, to steal a phrase, non-goddamn-plussed. “Um…you can just call me Ben if you want.”
“Bennn. Bennnnn,” it chirrups.
“Yep,” I say cheerfully. “That’s me.”
There’s a long pause, and then the first rat jabs me a second time with his spear, more forcefully, just beneath my eye.
“Ow,” I say.
The second rat seems to remonstrate forcefully with the first, hitting him several times with a tiny angry paw, and the first rat shrinks away slightly. I’m starting to get the hint that the speaker is the leader here. He’s a mite taller than the other, and he has what looks like a little hawthorn crown on his head.
“Huuumaannn Bennn. We arrree quaaannntliiinggs.”
“Quantlings?” It’s a word I’ve heard, though not a creature that I’ve seen in the flesh before now. I’d heard fireside tales of massive tribes of rat-people living beneath the earth, co-existing with other creatures where it was in their shared interests to do so.
There’s a skittering noise behind my head, and then the recluse spider from before totters around into my vision and stands next to the quantlings. I look from one to another of these creatures, and then behind them in the darkness, a thousand glowing ruby pinpricks denotes the rest of the tribe, standing unseen in the shadows.
“Huuummaaannn Bennn, wee haaaavee neeeed of yooouurrr maaagikkss,” the quantling says.
“I’m all about the magic,” I say sarcastically, wondering a little late if the quantlings speak enough human to understand tone of voice.
“Ouuutttstaaaaandddinggg,” the quantling replies. Before I can do anything else, the recluse covers me head to toe in thick, silky webbing, and the quantlings are dragging me off into the night.
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