Chapter 1: The Wait

Genetic magic created the slather as a dog-like beast that preys on the vulnerable populations of a city. The nest size rapidly increases as the slather use their victims as food for their young. — Illegal Creations of Genetic Magic

With a groan, Karin twisted her arm to scratch her back. The spot that itched remained just out of her right, in the spot above her right hip and far enough back she couldn’t use her other hand to reach it either. She had to lean into the warrior next to her to get the angle to drag her nails along the bloody bandage that wrapped around her waist. Underneath the fabric, the three gashes continued to throb despite her efforts. She pulled her hand back and looked at the tips, only a little blood had seeped through her bandage.

“You are going to open it up again.”

She looked up at the man she leaned again. Without breaking his gaze, she wiped her bloody fingertips on her stained trousers.

He shook his head slowly. The movement lifted her away from him for a moment. “I told you to roll left.” His voice was lower than usual, a rasp of too many combat spells in a crowded space.

Karin slowly blinked at him. She tried to make it deliberate instead of the exhaustion that beckoned her to pass out.

He chuckled. “Okay, I’m sure I told you to roll.”

“Yeah, Roal,” she said with a grin, “what you meant to say was that you screamed incomprehensibly like a little boy while that Black Slather gnawed on your foot.”

His mouth opened to say something, then he groaned. He lifted his bandaged leg from the other bench. “Thanks. I had almost forgotten that.”

He leaned away from her to scratch furiously, hissing in pain.

Without his presence, Karin had to tense her muscles to avoid falling. Reaching out with her other hand, she leaned against the table and stretched out to try scratching her back again. The slather had clawed her with a lucky blow, a few inches deeper and her organs would have been spilled out on the ground.

Around her, the rest of the survivors of the hunting party were sprawled out on benches and in padded chairs. The smell of blood, alcohol, and ozone hung in the air like smoke.

Of the twenty-one hunters that went into the slather nest, only ten managed to stagger back to the inn. Three probably wouldn’t survive the night.

A perverse mortality kept all of them in the main hall. If she wasn’t waiting, there was a bed and a warm bottle of whiskey to keep her company. She needed to know if Stac, Booker, or Maril survived their injuries.

“Who do you think will go first?” asked Roal.

“Not now.” She grabbed her glass of whiskey and drained it. The watery remains burned down her throat. With a sigh, she set the glass on the scratched table.

“I hate this waiting, damn the Couple. Why did there have to be seven of those bastard in that nest?”

“What else are you going to do? Send a scout to die? Try to send a mechanical in and hope they can’t smell the oil? They waited too long to tell us about them.”

Across the room, one of the archers groaned as she stood up. “Fuck all of you, I’m crashing. I’m sorry, I can’t keep my eyes open.” Her voice was hoarse and most of her right side had been bandaged; the blood had long since soaked into the fabric, staining it dark brown.

The others made various noises for the parting warrior, the effort to form words difficult with exhaustion and pain weighing down on all of them. All of them wanted to sleep, none of them wanted not to be there if there was bad news.

One of the waitresses walked past Karin, then slowed to look at the table. Turning around, she leaned over the edge and tapped the glass. “Want another?”

Karin glanced up. The waitress was a younger woman, maybe in her mid-twenties with short brown hair that stuck out at the ends. She had a cute nose, Karin decided, along with a dusting of freckles that started on her cheeks and danced down her neck to her collar.

If Karin wasn’t exhausted and in agony, the waitress would be the perfect distraction until the news came around. Even if the girl was straight, the effort would pass the hours.

As such, she was just a welcoming provider of whiskey and numbness. “Yes… please. Leave the bottle?”

“You know I can’t do that. City ordnance, but I’ll keep you topped off.”

The warm smile from the waitress did more to heat Karin than the burn of whiskey in her belly.

As the waitress headed to the bar, Roal leaned over. “You going to lick that peach?”

It took too much effort to look away but Karin managed. “Do I look like I could stay awake enough? It takes a while to properly please a woman.”

He smiled, rubbing a finger along his matted beard. “Well, in that case, I’m going to take a shot.”

“You have a bad leg and can barely walk.”

“Maybe she’ll rub it for me?”

Karin didn’t want to argue. “Not tonight, Roal. All I want is her to come back and fill my glass until we get news. Then I’m going to drink so much I won’t have nightmares of those damn slathers.”

“You’re going to wake up in a pool of vomit.”

“But I’m going to wake up. So leave the girl alone and just rub one out yourself.”

Roal grunted and then leaned back in his chair. He scratched his bandaged leg again as his eyes trailed over to the bar and the waitress bending over it while fishing for a bottle.

Karin rolled her eyes. “Just leave her alone.”

A wave of exhaustion slammed into her. Along the edges of the vision, she could almost see the slather tunnels again. The rough edges reminded her of crawling on her hands and knees, half-afraid that the side would burst out in a flurry of claws and teeth.

She knew the edges of a walking dream had clawed their way into her consciousness, but she struggled to keep her eyes open to avoid falling into a nightmare of death.

Shaking, she forced her hand to reach out to grab her empty glass. She brought it to her mouth to tilt it over in hopes of getting a drop of something burning wakefulness.

There was nothing but dry glass at the bottom.