Chapter 2 of Nobody’s Daughter.
My head snapped to the alarm in her voice, intestines already tightening in protest. Why did she always use my surname, treating me as if I was some crewmember on her ship? More importantly, what had her so spooked? I couldn’t see or smell a thing.
Kufugaki had a distinctive stench, the ones nearing the end-stage of the disease, especially. You couldn’t miss it. Imagine a dead mouse in a sealed bottle, baked in direct sunlight until its little body liquified. Now, shake up that bottle. Uncork it, take a deep whiff of meaty-sweet rodent slurry, and try to keep your stomach from turning itself inside out.
“What?” I hissed back, annoyed as much by her authoritarian tone as herelecting herself the leader of tonight’s hair-brained hunt. So, you saw some kufugaki earlier. Big deal, I wanted to say. Stay in the bunker with the kids and let the professionals deal with it!
And I did consider myself a professional. I’d been killing kufugaki with Satoshi ever since I was ten and on my own for the last four years. I was good at my job, too. Damned good. A natural, according to Satoshi. Death defined me, he said.
In a way, I guess it did. Death was my past, present, and probable future. The bounties from those kills—contributions to scientific research—kept us fed and clothed. Kept us going for another week, another month, another year. Which made tonight’s outing all the more infuriating. What the hell did a Shinu, a member of a sky clan whose feet rarely touched solid ground, know about stalking kufugaki?
When Juno didn’t answer right away, I said it again, this time extending the word into three syllables, “What?”
“Satoshi and I are going to canvas around the back.” A light grey sleeve bobbed in the murk. “You three take the front.”
So, they’d elected me the babysitter? Oh, hell no! “I think it’d be better if Tobi went with you guys,” I began. “That way, Aya and I can—”
“No one asked for your opinion, Renata,” Satoshi interrupted, his voice muffled by a thick black gaiter. “Juno is in charge tonight; we agreed. Just do what she says, alright?”
My stomach roiled, and I tasted bile at the back of my throat. In charge? Juno didn’t know the territory. Didn’t know squat, except for a maybe-location she’d glimpsed from a hovercraft this afternoon! What has she done to you? I wanted to scream. If he wasn’t so pussy-whipped, he would’ve realized just how wrong this was—this hunt, the two thirteen-year-olds she’d talked into tagging along, sweetening the pot with gifts for them—all of it!
“Yeah, sure.” Whatever. Too late to argue now. I waited until the shadows swallowed them, then turned to my charges. “Well, you heard him. Let’s go.”
“Do you think they’re still up there?” Tobi asked, a breathless eagerness infusing his tone. “My uncle said they don’t move around much at night.”
They didn’t as a rule, but wild boars and brown bears did. Thanks to nokuru, both species had made a comeback, extending their ranges from the mountains deep into the lowlands. Their nocturnal foraging and absolute fearlessness were another reason for the imposed curfew. Out here, kufugaki weren’t the only things that could kill you.
“Probably,” I sighed.If something else didn’t find us first.
Soon, the wind petered out, leaving nothing but an eerie, predatory stillness. It was never a good sign when even the bugs were holding their breath. But the ground, riddled with tufts of dried grass and obscured by patches of mist, wasn’t as slippery here. I eased forward, determined to reach the more level ground near the entrance. When my next step produced a brittle crunch, I drew back, wincing. Glass. Shit! In the silence, it sounded as loud as a gunshot.
I waited, one ear cocked forward for any telltale sounds: feral grunts, snorts, the scrape of hooves, claws, or the shuffle of footsteps.
Up ahead, Aya froze a few meters short of a listing carport, the sagging remains of the old hospital entrance. As she raised her crossbow, making a small animal-like sound in her throat, I could feel the fear radiating off her in waves and see her arms trembling. A gift from Juno, the miniature version of the automatic weapon, too heavy for her slight frame, would be too cumbersome in a clinch. If rushed, she’d be toast in a heartbeat.
Grip already tightening on my naginata, I took up a position at her left flank. While signaling Tobi to get a move on, I studied the shadowy vault. Mist hovered in thready wisps at the hospital entrance. The remains of its sign dangled by a frayed cable, creating a grating sound that set my teeth on edge.
Tobi, a doughy thirteen-year-old with an overgrown crew cut, joined us, panting. “Did you guys see something?” He palmed the sweat from his face and wiped it on his pants.
Have you ever stared into darkness so impenetrable it could have been a slab of stone, yet knew something was inside it, ready to pounce? More tickle than cold, the sensation starts at the back of your skull, then slides down and around. When it finds the spot where your lowest ribs curve from your sternum, it blossoms in the space like a terrible flower, and then all you feel is hollow.
Naginata raised, spike angled outward, I nodded. “Okay, all together. Slowly. Don’t shoot until we—”
Something metallic thudded inside the building, the sound reverberating as if it had occurred far down one of the empty corridors. Then a woman screamed.
“I’m coming, Juno!”
Tobi, still fumbling with his night-vision goggles, charged across the grass. Before I could tell him to stop, Aya vaulted after him, crossbow cradled against her chest.
Satoshi never would’ve let Juno enter an abandoned building. Hell, he never went in them himself! Something was wrong. Really wrong. I sprinted after the pair, catching up just as shadows swallowed Tobi’s form.
Aya, not quite as foolhardy, skidded to a stop just outside the shattered double doors, spraying glass and bits of metal. “Tobi! Tobi,” she called after him, both of us listening as his pounding footsteps retreated deeper down the main hallway.
“We have to go after him.” She started inside.
“No,” I hissed, yanking her back by an arm. “I’ll do it.”
“Why?” she asked in a whimper.
Because hollow; that was why.
“This might be a trap to lure us inside. Remember, some kufugaki can still speak.” I hit the recessed button on the naginata’s shaft, making it retract into a baton-sized weapon that was sickle-bladed at one end and spiked at the other. Easier to wield in a confined space. “Give me three minutes,” I said to Aya. “If I’m not back, just go. Get out of here. Okay?”
“But Juno and—”
A meaty thud, followed by scuffling sounds, interrupted her.
“I mean it. If I don’t come out, go back, and wait for them at the bunker. In the meantime, try not to shoot me, okay?” One hand reached for the spelunking light on my cap. The sounds were coming closer now. If nothing else, its halogen beam might blind one of the mutants long enough for me to escape.
“Run! Run!” Arms flailing, features twisted in fear, Tobi barreled out of the building. “It’s a—”
A loud hiss drowned him out, right before an explosion split the night. Blinding light and clouds of noxious smoke engulfed us.