I slid the talking skull into the sling carrier I wore, turning him until the empty eye sockets peered forward through the mesh front. He liked to see where we were going. “There’s no way I’m giving a chain restaurant more than three stars. I’m surprised you’d suggest it.”
“They earned it. You have to grade restaurants based on the quality of the food, the overall service, and the ambiance, not your own bias against laissez fairy corporatism and the evils of magarcho-capitalism.”
I chewed on my thoughts, trying to formulate my point. “You used to be extremely critical of the fanciest places. They said if Marvin Lemsky gave you three stars, you were damned proud. In twenty-seven years, you only ever gave one restaurant four stars, and none got five. You would never have set foot in a chain like Occult Gardens, let alone given them anything but zero stars. I’m thrilled to learn from you, to understand the power of good food and its communal nature, but I’m trying to hold to your standards.”
He kept quiet for a while as I walked down Beacon Lane. One thing I’d learned, you didn’t rush Marvin when he set himself to thinking. He was a good man—or skull, as the case may be—and I’d always found his advice helpful.
“How long have we been doing this now, Jack?”
“About six months, give or take, since we met.”
“You knew about me before the Incident, right?”
He put a great deal of weight on the word. Everyone did. The apocalypse of magic unleashed by M.I.T.’s research into dimensional wormholes carried a freight train of horrifying memories for those who survived. You could practically hear the way people capitalized it.
We’d never talked about the past. No one did. The past contained a lot of pain, as pasts often do. But we’d become friends and I was willing to share if he was ready. “Of course. Only by reputation though. Everyone knew the world-famous food critic Marvin Lemsky.”
He snorted, a sound of derision, not humor. “That man was a first-class douche bag. Mean spirited, rude, self-absorbed, entitled, boorish, and toxic.”
“That man was you.”
“Was being the operative word.” He heaved a great sigh. “Ten years I sat on a shelf at the library after someone tucked me in with the romance novels as a joke. The longest conversation I had was directing a goblin to the self-help section on the second floor. You have no idea how awful it is to transform in the middle of reaching for a book and be forgotten.”
“Wow,” I said, because nothing better came to mind. “Ten years? I’m sorry Marvin. I didn’t know it had been that long.”
“Thank you. But, frankly, spending a decade gathering dust does tend to change one’s perspective on things. I’m trying to be a better man.” He laughed. “Better skull perhaps. Whatever the case. When the goblin asked for self-help, it got me thinking about my own life and what a shithead I’d been. All the people I’d left behind, walked over. How alone it had left me, even before I’d turned into a skull. I thought if some goblin could better himself, so could I. Maybe the Incident would be a blessing of sorts.”
By then we’d reached Boston Commons. The pond in the middle had developed a vagrant whirlpool, coming and going every few hours, created by Boston’s own baby Charybdis. No one had a plan for what they would do when it grew too large for the small body of water, but the tourists seemed to love it. We came here after lunch every day to enjoy the show.
We took a seat on a bench and watched all manner of creatures passing by. Centaurs, minotaurs, gryphons flying overhead. A pumpkin colored wagon pulled by six white horses with ratty tails.
“You’ve done great,” I said as we waited for the Charybdis to begin. “I didn’t realize you used to be such a jerk.”
“I doubt if I’d remained human I would have corrected my deficiencies.”
“I’m not sure I’ve enjoyed it as much as you,” I said. “The economy collapsed, my mother and father disappeared, and everything changed for me. It was hard.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, Jack. But you survived. Many did, though we may be very different people now, and may those who did not rest in peace. But we adjusted.”
“I survived by eating rats.” Even now I scanned the area for the little bastards. Sweet, juicy rats to eat. Although I kept trying to catch fish, too. So far, they’d eluded me. I shook my head at those thoughts. Tonight would be the new moon. Already it affected me.
“See?” Marvin plowed on, oblivious to my mental detour. “Even you found a hidden strength in the changes. If not for that, you’d have starved to death like millions did.”
“Regardless. So, that’s why you rate more fairly now?”
“Right. Speaking of which: Occult Gardens. Yes, it’s a chain. But in all my years as a food critic, I’ve never enjoyed pasta so much.”
“Technically I enjoyed it, since you have neither taste buds nor nose.”
“It’s a reasonable point. But I enjoy it through you. A vicarious thrill if you will.”
“Could have turned out worse. It could have been that goblin whose taste buds you have a magical connection with.”
“True, true. But I can’t complain. We’ve got steady work at least, and that’s more than some. The Gourmets are the most famous anonymous food critics in all of New England.”
“Alright, points taken. Thank you for sharing with me. It means a lot that you feel you can. I’ll give three and half stars. How’s that?”
“How about four? Come on, Margo earned it. She even brought you an extra slice of pie when you told her I was your deceased uncle. She was kind of attractive, too, don’t you think?”
“Aren’t you a bit old for her? And fleshless?”
“Not for me. For you.”
“Oh.” Margo had been cute. Dark hair, green eyes, a crooked and radiant smile. “She’s probably got a boyfriend, though. Or might not want one.”
“I’m sure that’s why she kept smiling at you and brought you extra pie. Now stop being so enormously dense.”
I clutched my heart in mock horror. “You insult my dignity!”
“You earned it. And Margo earned four stars.”
I gave up the argument with a laugh. “Alright, four stars. But not a half star more.”
“That’s more like it. Now grab that paper from the trash can. You want something different, let’s find it.”
“Maybe we can find a seafood place,” I said.
I pulled yesterday’s Globe from the waste bin and spread it across my lap so Marvin could read it, too. We scanned for advertisements, or articles about businesses opening, which happened daily now. The recovery continued, a new world rising from the ashes of the old one.
Near the back, in the classified sections, Marvin gave a cough. “Bottom right.”
I picked out the tiny ad he’d noticed. Dark Forest Cottage, it read. Authentic European cuisine with old world ambience. “Not trying hard to get noticed.”
“Probably a new place, run by someone with little money to spare for advertisements. But you said you wanted something unique. This sounds like the perfect opportunity to highlight local fare.”
“It’s in Danvers.”
“We can take the flight rail.”
I winced. “No way. You know I get queasy when we fly.”
“What are you going to do, Jack, walk? The ogre carriage charges an arm and a leg, and you’ve only got the two of each. Or four legs and no arms, depending on the time of month.”
“I’ve got a talking skull. That must be worth something.”
“Very funny. But you know I’m right.”
“You just enjoy flying.”
“True. Come on, let’s go see.”
Marvin won that argument, too. He won most of the arguments. But his ability to weave a humorous, touching story around the review of a simple meal had provided us stable income at a time when the economy had a long way to go to recover fully. I didn’t begrudge losing.
We lined up with others waiting for a carpet, and crowded onto a threadbare Afghan when our turn came. The red and yellow print had faded to muddy pinks and off-whites, and loose threads speckled the edges. A tear along one side had been patched with gray duct tape. The djinn at the front of the fabric watched over his/her shoulder until everyone had settled in the required Sukhasana pose. I held my palms up and tried to keep my spine straight.
“Alright, hold onto your dunkies,” the djinn said. All the djinns said the same thing when they were about to launch. They spent their off-duty hours at Dunkins, filling up with hot, black coffee and donuts.
We launched. My body rose while my stomach stayed resolutely on the ground. I gulped to hold down the bile. Marvin chuckled in delight. I shook my head and gritted my teeth. The flight rail had a one hundred percent safety rating, but that didn’t stop me from being scared out of my wits every time we flew. Plus, I found the pose hard to maintain.
After several stops, and a transfer to the green flight rail at Salem—the second carpet a blue and purple Persian, newer and larger, thus more crowded—we got off in Danvers. We walked a quarter mile north and found the restaurant nestled in a strip of wild land west of the road. A dirt parking lot had been cut out of the wilderness to its left, empty now but for a single thin horse tied to a scraggly bush. Gnarled trees bracketed the stone structure on the right and to the rear. There was a glint of water through the trees behind it, suggesting a pond or lake.
“It’s a literal cottage,” Marvin said.
Indeed, that’s what it looked like. A stone cottage of a story and a half, with a steep roof made of thatching, rather than good old New England shingles or tin. Rounded windows with green shutters of wood. A tall chimney rose on one end, smoke curling from the top and lazily tugged away by the breeze. The door yard was full of beautiful wild flowers and buzzing bees. Not out of place, though, with the rest of the homes we had passed, which had undoubtedly been transformed when the wave of magic broke upon the world.
The sign over the door made it clear this was the Dark Forest Cottage we were looking for. I glanced at the late afternoon sun, lowering through clouds to the west. “Maybe we should come back tomorrow.”
“Still plenty of time to get in, get some food, and get home before sunset. It’s not like there’s a crowd.”
The door opened and warm light spilled from the interior. The wafting scent of food followed, delicious aromas that teased the nostrils and made my mouth salivate. A plump woman stepped into the doorway, framed by the glow behind her. She had on a plain blue dress that appeared homespun, over which she wore a crisp white apron. Her hair—white, but shot through with a great many golden strands—had been pinned up in a bun on the back of her head.
“Welcome to the Dark Forest Cottage,” she said, her pleasant voice booming across the yard. “Come on in, take a load off your weary feet, travelers. We’ve got spirits to lift your spirits, and meals to fill any appetite.”
“Thanks,” I said, approaching her. “Is this place new?”
“We’ve only been open a short while,” the woman said. Her smile was sweet and pleasant, the kind my grandmother would have given me when she fed us dinner. She had rosy red cheeks and deep wrinkles, but her eyes were bright blue and twinkled. Yes, they twinkled, and I’ll stand by that assessment.
“Madam, we are pleased to accept your invitation,” Marvin said, with polite formality. “The scent of your food is a balm to a weary soul indeed.”
“A talking skull,” she said, and clapped her hands together in delight. “How wonderful! Oh, we’ve had all kinds in here, let me tell you. Just last week I served a bugbear… what was it?” She clucked and tapped her fingers against her chin. “Yes, a delicious berry and cream tart. But I have never had the pleasure of serving bones.”
“Perhaps because most of the de-fleshed lack appetites for fine cuisine,” Marvin offered. “I, however, suffer not from such a sad fate. Though I may not be able to eat the food you serve, I assure you I will enjoy the repast in full with the help of my able companion.”
“Such fine manners,” the woman said, resting her wrinkled hand on my arm. “So rare these days. Everyone rushing around, no time to be pleasant, playing with their digital auguries and spellaphones. Please, do come in and let’s get the two of you situated so you can have a drink and decide what you wish to eat.”
She led us into the house. The main dining room had a low ceiling held up by thick, brown beams. The internal walls were white plastered, and homey paintings of pastoral scenes had been hung upon them. Other than the fire, the room was lit by enchanted lanterns on the middle of each table, the yellow glow flicking across white linen tablecloths and napkins, glinting off the silverware. The low sound of music spread through the chamber, a string piece, quiet enough to not be distracting but pleasant.
“What lovely ambiance,” Marvin said.
“Why thank you, dear,” the old woman said.
I nodded in agreement, a little slowly because I was distracted. There were a few hours to go until the new moon, but my skin itched as though I’d begun transforming. I thought I scented the musty odor of rat beneath the layers of food wafting through the room. I tried to tune out my senses. Every minute they would get worse until the hair ruptured my skin and I became a four-legged little demon.
She guided us to a table near the fire. I pulled Marvin from his pouch and placed him to my right before I seated myself. She smiled pleasantly and offered me a menu. “And one for you, dear,” she said, opening another and setting it upright upon the table in front of Marvin. “I recommend you start with the gazpacho. The tomatoes and cucumbers were freshly picked from my garden today. One of the house specialties.”
She bustled away through a door leading further into the cottage. I caught a glimpse of the kitchen. A red brick oven cast a reddish glow over a room filled with heavy cast iron pots and pans, a wall full of knives and cleavers. Then the door swung shut with a loud thump.
I examined the menu. The writing had been done in an archaic script, all curls and flourishes. I squinted, trying to determine if fish were anywhere on it. “Half a star off for the hard-to-read menu,” I said.
“But half a star more for the quaint setting, which is delightful.”
“You really are a changed man, Marvin.”
“I hope so,” he said quietly. “I really do hope so.”
The door opened again. Once more, I sniffed rat, a little stronger than last time. I tried to peer around the woman as she bustled towards us, but the door shut before I could see anything. She carried a tray with a brown bowl resting on it.
“I took the liberty of bringing you a sample of the gazpacho.” She rested the tray on the table and swept the bowl in front of me. “Do enjoy. It’s on the house.”
Then she was gone again, seemingly filled with boundless energy. When the kitchen door swung shut, I looked at the soup. “What’s gazpacho?”
“Cold vegetable soup, most often with a tomato base. A Spanish dish. I admit, I often felt that American restaurants who served it did a great disservice to the origins of the cuisine, which had been one of my favorite meals when touring Spain and Portugal. Go on, try it.”
“Cold?” I stirred the vegetables with a spoon. “I’d prefer warm.”
“Oh, for goodness sake, Jack. I’d give my writing skills for a companion whose palate is not quite so beige.”
“I see celery in here. Not a fan of celery.”
He sighed so deeply he might have blown the lantern off the table if he still had lungs. “Please try it. For me?”
I laughed. “I’m just giving you a hard time. Of course I’ll try it.” I lifted a spoonful to my mouth and tasted. It was quite good, though I continued to believe it would be improved with heating. A bit saltier than needed perhaps, though that might be Marvin’s opinion, not mine. When I ate, his thoughts came through to me, just as he could sense the smell and texture and flavor of the foods I experienced.
“Very good,” he said, with a low voice. “Wonderful. Perhaps a pinch too much salt. But there’s some other flavor beneath the vegetables. Something… I can’t quite place it. It can’t be chili powder, can it? Something zesty.”
I swallowed, frowning. “Yes. Beneath the salt.” There was a deeper flavor that hit after the swallow, a bit sharp. Not quite bitter. I lifted another spoonful, and my hand shook. Some of the soup dripped back into the bowl.
“Are you okay?” Marvin asked.
I’d gotten close enough to my transformation that I could pick out every spice in the meal. Marvin had taught them to me. Cumin was there, pepper, salt, sherry vinegar, garlic. I knew them all. Now I recognized the strange flavor. My kind are many things, but not stupid when it comes to knowing what things they shouldn’t eat.
I dropped the spoon into the bowl, splattering soup on the table. I could smell it clearly now. “Marvin, it’s poison!”
I pushed away from the table, but instead of standing, I lurched over onto my hands and knees. “Marvin, what do I do?” My voice trembled and my gut began to twist in pain.
“Jack, get up. Come on, grab me, we need to get out of here. Get help.”
The room began to blur. I tried to rise to my knees, but fell over again. I doubled up in pain, hot and cold spurs running through my flesh, up and down my arms and legs like thousands of pins being poked into me. “Marvin!” I screamed as I choked. My tongue felt swollen.
The door to the kitchen opened. The smell of rat came strong now. I could see their beady eyes burning at me from the doorway as the woman approached the table. Red dots, like fires, in the glowing gloom of the cottage.
“I’ve never served bone before,” she said, as my vision went black. “I can’t wait to grind you up and add your magic powder to my focaccia. Oh, it’s going to taste divine.”
My breath rattled through my lungs. I lost control of my bowels, and my body begin spasming uncontrollably, legs and arms thrashing against the floor.
“Come, sweeties. When he’s done twitching, drag him out back and dump him by the wood pile. He’ll be dead in an hour or two and I’ll bleed the body. Then you can feast.”
The scratching of hundreds of tiny claws was the last thing I heard.
I roll over and stretch. Something pokes against me and I open my eyes to realize that I am not where I am supposed to be. When I awake, I am supposed to be on the soft carpet of my apartment with the window open so I may slink out into the fire escape and spend my night roaming the city streets. There are many wonderful creatures to stalk and pounce and slay. Tasty eating. Except for the fish in the ponds. I have not yet caught one, though I have tried. Well, life is often disappointment.
I am behind a wood pile and I am lying on the ground. There are woods, I notice, behind me. It is not yet completely dark. I swat the offending stone that pokes my side. Then I rise, giving my stretch its full due, arching my back. One great yawn splits my jaws, and then I set to licking myself. One does not present oneself to the world until one has cleaned.
But the reek annoys me. Nearby is a pile of clothing. There is the scent of me upon the fabric, so these must be mine. But they are also sweaty and soiled, as though I have failed to use the appropriate facility for waste deposit. This is not something I would normally do of course, but perhaps I ate something not so good for me. There is a deeper odor as well. Something…
I sniff again, and my eyes widen. I have died here. I can feel now that one of my lives is missing. I walk around the clothing, but it does not reveal itself. Instead, scattered like playthings, are many bones. Human bones. Someone else died here. More than one someone.
There is another scent, too. It smells like rat. Yes, there comes now the realization there are many rats nearby. And they have feasted upon the flesh of humans.
FOULNESS! Rats are not to be playing the predator and eating the peoples. It is I, the stalker, who feed upon the vermin. I am most displeased by this realization. The proximity of my awakening to the many bones and the loss of one of the nine can only mean I had been placed there while still human and left as a meal for the sewer dwellers. But my transformation has purged me of the poison that laid my other form low.
I must stop these rats from their depraved actions.
Behind me is a home. The scent of rat leads to chinks in the stonework and the doorway and windows. Someone is singing.
It is not a nice song.
I slink, belly low, towards an open window. The voice is cracked and warbling, like a bird with a broken neck. It is a stretch, but I reach the window edge and peak inside.
There is wood and brick and a fire and metal things, including sharp things. There is a big table upon which rests a skull. An old woman stands in front of the fire and she stirs a large pot, steam rising from it. It is her voice I hear.
“I am boiling, I am steaming, I am chopping all to eat. I will serve you, I will eat you, I will gobble all your meat. I am cutting, I am grinding, I am stirring up the broth. I will slice you, I will dice you, and turn your blood to sauce.”
“You are very poor poet for a murderess,” the skull says. Him I know.
“Your magic osseous will make my food delicious,” the old woman says.
Around her, watching, are many rats. Black, with sleek fur. Little red eyes. There are many of them, yes. If I could count, I am certain I would count very high. But there are clearly more than one.
“Bring me the hammer,” the old woman says.
Several of the black rats scurry out an open doorway into another room. When they return, they are dragging a very large object. It is an old hammer, the metal stained with some reddish discoloration. She bends and lifts it, and she turns to the skull.
“No, please!” the skull implores. He is very good at begging. I have yet to hear a rat so skilled at pleading for mercy. Well, perhaps the rat king, who begged very nicely before I ate him. But the skull should not plead for its existence from a rat lover.
“I will be back to grind you up in a moment, dear. First, I need to tend to your friend out back and let the rats have their feast.” She touches the top of the skull and laughs. “Don’t you move, dearie.”
I dash behind a small bush near the back door and watch as she and the rats parade towards the forest. In a moment, they will find that my body is gone, so I hurry into the room through the door she has left open.
“Jack Sprat!” the skull says. “You’re alive. Thank the fates!”
The skull is often at my apartment when I go out to hunt, though he is not quite so chatty then. “Hello talking skull.”
“Listen, Jack. She’ll be back at any moment. You have to get me out of here before she returns.”
My ears are good. I can hear her and the rats out near the woods. There is no need to rush, so I begin to clean one of my paws. “What is in it for me?”
“Jack, please, this is no time for jokes. She’s going to destroy me. I don’t want to die.”
“You are already dead, yes? You are a skull. Skulls are from dead things.” The logic of this is very clear. I thought the skull smarter.
There comes a tortured screech. Dear me, the bad singer seems upset. I would guess that means she has found the place where my body lay, only now there is no body. Surprise, bad singer. You cannot kill the stalker so easily. “She’s coming back soon.”
“What do you want?”
There is something I want very much. Something I have never been able to catch yet. Of course, I would rescue him from the very bad singer without it, but I am unable to refuse the gift now offered. “I would like a fish. A big one. You will get me a fish?”
“I’ll get you a dozen fishes if you get me out of here.”
“How will you do this with no hands or feet, mister talking skull?”
“Jack and I will get it. Oh hell, this is bizarre. I’m talking to you, only you’re a cat and you’re not you. Now can we please go?”
“Jack is me, though I am not Jack. Do not call me Jack. It does not dignify me.”
The skull sighs. Humans do that so well, even their bony skulls. Oh, and dogs. There is nothing quite like the sigh of a doggy to make me smile.
“How should I address you?”
I have many names of course. Slinker. Hunter. He Who Ate the Rat King. The One Who Steals the Yarn. But only one matters tonight. “You may refer to me as The Stalker.”
“The Stalker. Now can we please go?”
I leap gracefully upon the surface. “A dozen fish?”
I smile my secret smile. “It is agreed.” I take the jaw of the skull into my mouth. It seems the only way to grip it. It is bulky, but not so heavy. “Now we go.” My words are slurred by the bone in my mouth.
“Thief!” the singing woman screeches.
“Oh damn,” the skull says.
“Unexpected,” I say, surprised at how quickly and quietly she returned. Very sneaky, bad singer.
She is standing in the doorway and her face is very red and her eyes are very black and she is very angry. The rats crowd around her, red eyes glowing as they look upon me. “So, not a human then. A were being. You’ll make a fine addition to the meal.”
“Are you serving fish?” I ask, hopefully.
“Our menu tonight is cat and skull.”
“No thank you,” I say. I leap from the table and race into the next room through the door left open when the rats brought her the hammer.
“Go out one of the windows!” the skull yells.
The windows are barred and shuttered. I skid across the slick stone floor, claws scrambling for purchase. “Which way?”
Through the open door behind, the rats come. Many more than one.
“Kill the cat!” the bad singer chokes.
“You should take some honey for that scratchy throat,” I tell her. I place the skull down upon the floor and swat it under a table. Then I turn to face the horde of vermin. “I am The Stalker, He Who Ate the Rat King, Keeper of Sharp Claws, the Twitching Tail of Doom.”
Into the mob I leap. I slash and bite and tear and move, move, MOVE like lightning. That is a good name. Perhaps I should add He Who Moves Like Lightning to my titles. The little rats fall like wheat to the scythe, but there are more than one, many more. Their teeth are sharp, and I am slashed and bitten.
I spring onto a table, but I have left another life behind. Only seven of nine remain. My breathing is heavy as I turn in circles. The rats boil up the legs, tiny claws scratching against the wood. But they come slower this time. Perhaps they are wary of me now, with so many of their filthy brethren dead. I use this to my advantage, darting in to decapitate one with a well-placed swipe, while biting another nearly in half. I leap back before they can strike.
The edge of the table grows crowded with them. I am in the center, circling, looking, weighing plans. A few more times I feint, then slash. A few more fall down dead, dead, DEAD. The chittering grows louder. They are about to attack.
The circle closes suddenly, but HA! I am not there. I leap to a windowsill, then bound up onto a tall piece of furniture. They are after me of course, but they are slow. I consider sitting and cleaning my paw to show them what little concern I have for their feeble attempts.
“Come here,” the bad singer says, and she PUTS HER HANDS UPON ME!
She is much stronger than her round shape would appear and my claws leave deep furrows in the cabinet. I am swung around in the air like a toy. But how? I move like lightning, and still she grabbed me as easily as I caught the rat king.
She turns me in her hands to face her. She has me clenched around the ankles, holding my legs in both hands. I struggle but am unable to shake free of her grip, her fingers calloused like hard stone.
“Be a good kitty, won’t you, and die,” she says. Her black eyes glint with starlight and her smile grows bigger. She has very long, sharp teeth. Her mouth unhinges and she draws me towards a waiting tunnel of red flesh and black depths. Warm breath caresses my face with a foul stench. I am to be consumed.
“I have already died the twice,” I say. I stretch my neck forward and BITE her big nose! HA!
Blood spurts under my teeth and she howls. She yanks me loose and I take the tip of her nose with me and I swallow it before she flings me across the room. I am dashed against the wall and I fall to the floor, stunned.
Another life is torn from me.
The rats come again. I rise on unsteady paws as she spins and howls, howls, HOWLS. I am pleased her blood speckles the floor and the walls.
“Do you surrender?” I ask bravely.
“Kill it!” she screeches.
Oh, how they come.
There are many spins and blows. I stagger under so many little creatures. I fall back and forth on the precipice of death. I expend my lives like water, swirling in and out of the rabble. Four gone, five gone. Six gone, seven gone. I am not human. I am not cat. I die for the eighth time, and I rise again.
They do not. That is the only thing of importance.
I stand among the dead, soaked in their blood and mine. Her half-eaten nose bleeds down her chin and soaks her clothing. She holds a cleaver in hand and a butcher knife in the other.
“I will take the talking skull and go. If you follow, I will kill you.”
“My little pets,” she moans, her eyes darting around the room. “You killed them.”
“You are to blame,” I tell her. I approach the table where beneath the skull rests. “You are not a very nice person.”
She screeches and comes at me. I spring at her face, all my claws extended and I howl my deepest yowl. But I do not sink my claws. I bounce off her rounded flesh and land near the skull.
She falls back, tripping over the step in the doorway. She falls, her knife and cleaver flung away. She falls, and bashes the kettle heating over the fire. It falls, tipping over her head, spilling steaming hot broth down her body.
Her legs thrash against the floor. Her hands grab the heated metal and try to pry it off. Oh, how she SCREAMS, her voice muffled by the kettle. It rings like a bell as she claws at it.
I grab the skull and I run, run, RUN out the door to the behind of the house and dash into the darkness of the woods. I do not stop when I reach the shore of a lake, but sprint beside it, until we are on the far side. Here, the woods are less dark. I place the skull on a soft matt of leaves and begin to clean myself again.
“Jack?” the skull says.
“The Stalker, please.”
“Sorry, The Stalker. I wanted to thank you. You didn’t have to save me.”
I pause. “You are my friend. I would not leave you there to be ground into flour for bread, even if there had been no fish offered.”
I think perhaps the skull is smiling. It is hard to tell with a skull. “Well thank you just the same.” There is a pause and I return to cleaning myself. “Oh, and… The Stalker?”
I examine my foreleg. “Yes?”
“Feel free to give this restaurant zero stars.”
I begin work on the other foreleg. “Yes, that is wise.”
“Margo might be working at Occult Gardens tomorrow.”
“Does Margo like cats?”
“Maybe we should wait until you’re you.”
“I am always me.” Though I admit, after the eight deaths in one night, I find the prospect of lazing about in a clumsy human body appealing. Embarrassing, too, but then I will feel nine times better when I am me once more.
I pick him up and lope my way southwest towards the glow of the great city, where slender, crystalline towers of sorcery rise to pierce the skyline. The rat king once lived beneath those places of magic.
I hope we will have time to hunt on the way.
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