Small Worlds part 218

Ryan had expected a battlefield.

It was night in North America when he set foot in Grant, a town he’d never thought he’d returned to after the encounter with the mummies of lost Ys. It had been almost a blip on his radar, noteworthy to him mainly as the first time he and Athena had fought side by side. Mainly, it had been a reminder of how little regard Bast and Moloch held for human life.

Now that he was back here, he expected to walk into another war zone. Whatever horrific monsters Bast had conjured running through the streets, the civilians of Grant shooting from windows and stores. He hadn’t expected the silence.

It wasn’t the normal silence one associated with a sleepy small town in rural America. That silence was comfortable, like a warm blanket on a cold night. This silence? It had a harsh, metallic edge to it. The silence that came after a car crash or an explosion, like a ringing in your ears that’s hiding the screams. “Are we too late?” He said.

Dianmu shook her head next to him. She’d already drawn a glaive out of her nanoverse, and was giving the empty street a suspicious gaze. “There were still flashes on the Zoisphere. There are people still alive here.”

Nabu stood on the other side. He looked as calm and composed as Ryan remembered, and it was both comforting and deeply disturbing to have Nabu back again. If he pulls out a notebook, I might scream, Ryan thought, then pushed the thought aside. It wasn’t important. He had to manage. He could deal with his old trauma after he saved whatever was left of this town. “Come on,” he said and started to walk down the empty street.

There were signs something had happened here. The McDonald’s the passed had its windows shattered, and a strong smell of offal wafted from that building. Grant’s one Cafe also had a broken window, and through the window Ryan could see a hand stretched out from under a table, the rest of the body hidden by the booths. He turned on his divine sight to confirmed what he already suspected – whoever that hand belonged to was dead, and had been for some time, their body cooled down to the same temperature as the floor beneath them. Dried blood had pooled there, attracting flies.

The next store, the town’s lone bookstore, had a dead body propped up against the door. Ryan walked over to the corpse. This man, whoever he had been, looked like he was in his late thirties, early forties. He might have been handsome in life. It was hard to tell. Death had not been kind to him. His mouth and eyes were both opened wide, frozen in the terror of his final moments, and someone – or some thing – had torn open his chest and ripped out the heart.

Ryan stepped back, fighting a wave of nausea. He’d fought against gods and monsters, but he’d never been so close to a dead body when there wasn’t an immediate threat. It was something different entirely than seeing one in the moment of a fight. There was a silence, a stillness. Like a burnt out house, once full of life and joy and hope, now broken and shattered and charred. “What the hell could have done that?” Ryan asked.

Dianmu and Nabu stepped closer to see what he meant. “His heart’s been taken,” Nabu said, with the dispassion of someone who had seen countless dead bodies.

“An ammit?” Dianmu asked, leaning down to inspect. Ryan took both of their focus on the dead body as an excuse to look away and watch for any encroaching threats.

“Unlikely,” Nabu said after a moment’s consideration. “They usually only feast after the person’s already dead. This man’s heart was removed still beating. Perhaps a loup garou?”

Ryan heard a squelching sound from behind him and forced himself not to look. It was bad enough to imagine what they were doing in their investigation of the man’s body. Seeing it would have been even worse. After everything you’ve been through, you’re squeamish about this? Ryan wondered.

But it was different. There was something strange and unnatural about it, without adrenaline pumping through his veins and keeping his mind focused on the immediate threat. This was something different, something colder. It was frightening in a way he couldn’t quite put his finger on.

“No,” Dianmu said after a moment. Her voice wasn’t quite as collected as Nabu’s – there was a hint of underlying sorrow to it. She, at least, was aware of the tragedy that this man’s life was cut short. “There’s no other injuries on his body. Have you ever known one of them to just eat the heart if their victim was capable of running. Besides – Bast hates canines.”

Nabu made a thoughtful sound, but didn’t argue. “How about an aswang? I know they eat more than just the heart, but if they only had time to eat one organ…”

“It’s possible,” Dianmu conceded. “But I don’t think it’s likely. We’d smell it if an aswang had been in this town in the last month. You never forget a stench like that. I think we’re dealing with something new.”

“You might be right. But what could have arisen so quickly-”

Ryan lost track of their conversation. Someone was coming, running towards Ryan. Whoever he was, he was unmistakably human, wearing a t-shirt with some dark pattern on it and jeans. Ryan raised his hand and motioned the man over.

The man turned and dashed towards Ryan, passing under a street lamp as he approached. The harsh light threw the man into sharp relief. That dark pattern on his shirt was blood, and it ran up his neck to his chin. The man’s eyes were wild. Oh damn it’s a zombie it’s a goddamn zombie. Ryan raised his hands, reaching out for the equations that governed reality.

As if in response to Ryan’s threat, the approaching man dropped to all fours, taking the shape of a loping feiline.

You’re responsible for this, Ryan thought, and with a sudden shout of rage he didn’t realize he’d been holding back, Ryan threw out his hand and let a bolt of lightning arc from his fingers into the charging creature. It through the thing back and drew both Nabu and Dianmu’s attention to the threat.

“Any of you know what runs like a man and can turn into the ugliest panther you’ve ever seen?” Ryan asked as the cat-thing struggled to get back to its feet.

“I’ve never heard of such a thing,” Dianmu confirmed.

“Me either.” Ryan began to stalk forward. “Let’s ask it what it is.”

He was so focused on the threat in front of him, he didn’t notice the other eyes drawn by his attack.

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