Origins – Ilona Andrews

Karina Tucker took a deep breath. “Jacob, do not hit Emily again. Emily, let go of his hair. Don’t make me stop this car!” Her daughter’s face swung into the rearview mirror, outraged as only a six-year-old could be. “Mom, he started it!” “I don’t care who started it. If you don’t be quiet right now, things will happen!” “What things?” Melissa whined. Megan, her twin, stuck her tongue out. Karina furrowed her eyebrows, trying to look mean in the rearview mirror. “Horrible things.” The four children quieted in the back of the van, trying to figure out what “horrible things” meant. The quiet wouldn’t last. Karina drove on. The next time Jill called to ask her if she would chaperone a gaggle of first graders for a school field trip, she would claim to have the bubonic plague instead. The trip itself wasn’t that awful. The sun shone bright, and the drive down to the old-timey village, forty-five minutes from Chikasha, was downright pleasant.

Nothing but clear sky and flat Oklahoma fields with an occasional thin line of forest between them to break the wind. But now, after a day of hayrides and watching butter being churned and iron nails being hammered, the kids were tired and cranky. They’d been on the road for twenty minutes and the lot of them had already engaged in a World War III–scale conflict three times. She imagined the other parents hadn’t fared any better. As the six cars made their way up the rural road, Karina could almost hear the whining emanating from the vehicles ahead of her. They should have just gotten a school bus. But Jill had panicked half of the parents over the bus not having seat belts. In retrospect, the whole thing seemed silly. Thousands of children rode school buses every day with no problems, seat belts or not. Unfortunately, creating panic was one of her best friend’s talents.

Jill meant well, but her life was a string of self-created emergencies, which she then cheerfully overcame. Usually Karina pulled her off the edge of the cliff, but with Emily involved, it was hard to maintain perspective. This pointless worry really had to stop. Emily wasn’t made of glass. Eventually Karina would have to let her go on a trip or to a sleepover without her mommy. The thought made Karina squirm. After Jonathan died, she’d taken Emily to a grief counselor, who offered to work with her as well. Karina had turned it down. She’d already been through it, when her parents passed away, and it hadn’t made things any easier. Her cell beeped.

Karina pushed the button on her hands-free set. “Yes?” “How are you holding up?” Jill’s voice chirped. “Fantastic.” Would be even better if she didn’t have to talk on the phone while driving. “You?” “I need to go potty!” Jacob announced from the back. “Robert called Savannah a B word. Other than that we’re good,” Jill reported. “I really need to go. Or I’ll poop in my pants. And then there’ll be a big stain .

” “Listen, Jacob needs to go potty.” She caught sight of a dark blue sign rising above the trees. “I’m going to pull over at the motel ahead of you.” “What motel?” “The one on the right. With the big blue sign, says Motel Sunrise?” “Where?” Jill’s voice came through tinted with static. “I don’t see it.” “I don’t see a motel,” Megan reported. “Look at the blue sign.” Emily pointed at the window. “Well, I don’t see it,” Jacob declared.

“That’s because you’re a doofus,” Emily said. “You suck!” “Quiet!” Karina barked. The exit rolled up on her right. Karina angled the car into it. “I’m taking this exit,” she said to the cell phone. “I’ll catch up with you in a minute.” “What exit? Karina, where are you? You were right there and now you’re gone. I don’t see you in my rearview mirror . ” “That’s because I took the exit.” “What exit?” Oh, for the love of God.

“I’ll talk to you later.” The paved road brought them to a two-story building covered with dark gray stucco. Only one car, an old Jeep, sat in the parking lot. Karina pulled up before the entrance and hesitated. The building, a crude box with small narrow windows, looked like some sort of institutional structure, an office, or even a prison. It certainly didn’t look inviting. “Now I see it,” Megan said. Karina shook her head. You’d think if you owned a motel, you’d want to make it seem hospitable. Plant some flowers, maybe choose a nice color for the walls, something other than battleship gray.

It only made good business sense. As it was, the place radiated a grim, almost menacing air. She had a strong urge to just keep on driving. “I have to go!” Jacob announced and farted. Karina jumped out of the van and slid the door open. “Out.” Fifteen seconds later, she herded them inside a small lobby. The lone woman standing behind the counter turned her head at their approach. She was skeletally thin, with long red hair dripping down past her shoulders. Karina glanced at her face and almost marched back out.

The woman had eyes like a rattlesnake, no compassion, no kindness, no anger. Nothing at all. “I’m sorry,” Karina said. “Could we please use your facilities? The little boy needs to go to the bathroom.” The woman nodded to the archway on Karina’s right. Charming. That’s okay. They just needed to get in and get out. “Thank you! Come on, kids.” The archway opened into a long hallway.

On the left, several doors punctuated the wall, one marked “Bathroom” and another, at the very end, marked “Stairs.” On the right an older man stood in the middle of the hallway. Heavily muscled, with a face like a bulldog, he’d planted himself as if he were about to be overrun by rioters. His eyes watched her with open malice. The kids sensed it, too, and clustered around her. Karina didn’t blame them. “Hi!” The man said nothing. Okay. She marched to the bathroom and swung the door open. A single-person bathroom, relatively clean.

No scary strangers hiding anywhere. “In you go.” She ushered Jacob inside and stood guard by the door. Minutes ticked off, long and viscous. The man hadn’t moved. The children kept quiet under his scrutiny, like tiny rabbits sensing a predator. Karina knocked on the door gently. “Come on, Jacob. Let the other kids have a turn.” “Almost done.

” Karina waited. The man kept staring at her. Gradually his face took on a new expression. Instead of staring her down, he was now studying her as if she were some bizarre alien life-form. That was even more disturbing. Karina fought a shiver. “Jacob, we need to go.” She heard the toilet flush. Finally. Jacob emerged from the bathroom.

“I washed my hands with soap,” he informed her. “Do you want to smell them?” “No. Does anybody else need to go?” They shook their heads. Emily hugged her leg. “I want to go home, Mom.” “Excellent idea.” Karina led them down the hallway. The man moved to block their way. “Thank you for letting us use the bathroom,” Karina said. “We’ll be on our way now.

” The man leaned forward. His nostrils fluttered. He sucked in the air through his nose and his face split in a grin. He didn’t smile; he showed her his teeth: abnormally large and sharp, triangular like shark teeth, and definitely not human. Ice skittered down Karina’s spine. The man took a step forward. “You ssshmell like a donor.” His teeth took up so much space in his mouth, he slurred the words. Karina backed away, holding her hands out to shield the kids behind her. She wished she had a can of mace or a gun—some weapon in her purse other than Kleenex, her pocketbook, and a cell phone with a dead battery.

“Let us out!” The man advanced. “Rishe! The woman ishh a donor.” “We’ll be leaving now!” Karina put some steel into her voice. Sometimes if you looked like you were ready to fight, people backed down and looked for an easier target. The man bared his teeth again and she glimpsed what looked like a second row of fangs behind the first in his mouth. “No, you won’t,” he said. Time for emergency measures. “Help!” Karina screamed at the top of her lungs. “Help!” “No help,” he assured her. The kids began to cry.

Maybe this is a nightmare, flashed in her head. Maybe she was dreaming. “Mom?” Emily clutched at her jeans. Dream or not, Karina couldn’t let him get a hold of her or the kids. She kept backing away to the door behind her, the one labeled “Stairs.” “Let us go!” He kept coming. “Rishe! Where are you?” The wall on their right exploded. Splintered pieces of wood peppered the hallway, knocking the shark-toothed man back and missing Karina by mere inches. Stunned, she glanced into the gap in the wall. The redheaded woman —Rishe?—jumped over the counter and ran directly at Karina and the children, her face twisted into a grotesque mask.

The skin on Rishe’s neck bulged, rolling up, as if a tennis ball slid up her throat into her mouth. This is just crazy . The woman spat. Something dark flickered through the air. Pain stung Karina’s left side. A long thin needle, like the quill of a porcupine, sprouted from her stomach, just under the ribs. She yanked it out on pure instinct. She should’ve been terrified, but there was no time . Something hit the red-haired woman from behind, arresting her in midstep. Rishe’s mouth gaped in a terrified silent scream.

Huge claws grasped her face, jerked, and her head twisted completely around. Oh, my God. Rishe’s body fell, and beyond it Karina glimpsed a thing. Huge, dark, inhuman, it stared back at her with malevolent eyes. Its very existence was so at odds with everything Karina knew, that her mind simply refused to believe it was real. An odd odor saturated the air, dry and slightly metallic, like copper warmed by the sun. The thing stepped over the woman, its gaze fixed on her. “Run!” Karina turned on her heel and dashed down the hallway, herding the children before her. The man with shark teeth rose slowly, pulled a wooden splinter out of his eye, tossed it aside, and, with a deep bellow, charged into the lobby through the hole in the wall. A snarl answered him, a promise of pain and death.

It whipped Karina into a frenzy. She swiped Jacob off the floor—he was the smallest—and ran faster to the heavy door barring the stairs. She jerked it open. “Up the stairs, go, go!” They ran up, whimpering and sobbing. The same fear that drove her propelled them up the stairs better than anything she could’ve screamed. Karina slammed the door closed, balancing Jacob on one arm, and looked for something to bar it, but the stairway was empty. Her stomach burned, the pain from the needle puncture spreading up and down her body as if her skin had caught on fire. She ran after the kids. The boy in her arms was stone heavy. They reached the top of the staircase and crowded on the landing.

Below something clanged. There it was again, the scent of hot metal burning her lungs. Karina set Jacob down and wrenched the door open. They burst into the upstairs hallway. She scanned the rows of doors and tried to shove the nearest one open, but it was locked. Another—locked, too. Third—locked. This is a nightmare. It has to be a nightmare. A vicious snarl chased them.

Emily screamed, a high-pitched shriek that could’ve broken glass. Karina grabbed her daughter by the hand and dragged her down the hall, to the single window. “Follow me!” Beyond the window a fire escape waited. Karina grasped the window latch and jerked it up. Stuck. Her head swam. The air around her had grown scalding hot. Every breath burned her lungs from the inside out. She stumbled, caught herself on the windowsill, and pulled the sash upward with all her strength. The wood groaned and suddenly the frame slid up.

A door thumped. Kids screamed. The terrible dark beast had made it into the hallway. She grabbed the nearest child and hurled her onto the fire escape, then the next, and the next. Little feet thudded, running down the metal stairs. Emily was last. Karina clutched her daughter to her and climbed out on the fire escape. A black van waited below. Several men stood by the van. They had the children.

They stood there silently, watching her, so calm while the kids screamed, and suddenly she realized that they and the beast inside were allies. They were trapped. A growl washed over her. The world gained crystal clarity, everything becoming painfully vivid and sharp. Slowly Karina turned. Her daughter hugged her, her breath a tiny warm cloud on her neck. The metal rail of the fire escape dug into Karina’s back. The thudding of her heart sounded so loud, each beat shook her rib cage like a blow from a sledgehammer. Every breath was a gift. She saw the thing emerge from the darkness.

Slowly, it solidified out of the gloom, one gargantuan paw on the windowsill, then another. Enormous claws scratched the wood. It climbed onto the windowsill and perched there, a mere foot from her. Karina stared into its eyes, inhaled its scent, and knew with absolute certainty that she was going to die. The thing opened its maw, revealing huge fangs. Its deep voice issued forth in a single mangled word. “Donor.” “Are you sure?” asked a male voice from below. The beast snarled. Karina jerked back, shielding Emily with her hands.

Her legs gave out and she fell to her knees. “My lady?” said the voice from below, closer now. She barely turned her head, not daring to take her gaze from the monster in the window. A darkhaired man climbed the fire escape toward her. His face was preternaturally beautiful, his eyes a dark, intense blue. “I have a proposition for you, my lady . ” His voice faded, replaced by darkness and the feel of cotton against her body. I agree. Karina sat up . She was in her bed.

The room lay dark about her. A nightmare. That was all. Her heart thudded in her chest. She rubbed her face and her hands came away slick with cold moisture. I agree. “I agree” to what? What did she agree to in her dream? It didn’t matter. It was a nightmare. In the morning, she’d call the grief counselor. Karina frowned and pushed free of the blankets.

She felt a strange sense of wrongness, as if there was something very important she was missing. Something vital. A small lamp waited on the table next to the bed. She flicked it on and a cone of soft electric light illuminated the room. The bedroom wasn’t hers.

.

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