The Little Queen – Things in the Woods

Another excerpt from my ongoing revising of The Little Queen. This is the end of Chapter One, and the first big action scene when Kaya encounters her first Changeling (well, technically she has encountered them before in the story but just didn’t realise it):

Kaya had been trying to sleep, as well as anyone could in the front seat of a small hatchback on a night that was dark and stormy. The weather had turned very quickly, tiny droplets starting to splash on the windscreen, but at least the view whenever she opened her eyes was suitably dramatic. She had parked at the top of a hill overlooking an inky valley, and in the distance the silhouettes of trees waved before the black and gray sky like they were praying to their gods for rain. And then she heard the scream.

Kaya was quite used to being woken by screaming in the middle of the night. It was usually drunks, couples arguing, people brawling. But this had been close and most unsettling in the way it had been cut off so abruptly. She looked around and checked her mirrors, but couldn’t see a thing out there. Just warehouses on one side and a line of trees marking the edge of the road on the other. It was a relief, really, as it meant she needn’t open the door to go check on anything. But then, unfortunately, she did see something. In front of one of the warehouses a ‘to let’ sign had been hammered into the turf, and behind it was a shoe attached to, she assumed, a leg. Had someone fallen? From the roof? Kaya dreaded what she might see if she went over there, but… she supposed she had no choice. It was part of her duty as a fellow life-form.

So she got out, wrapping her arms around herself as she felt the night chill and the rain droplets like ice on her skin. “Um… hey?” She cooed gently. “Hey, are you okay?” She very slowly leaned sideways, peeping round the sign, her jaw dropping and skin turning pale as she saw the answer – no. No he was most definitely not okay. Not that he could have seen if he was as there were just two holes oozing ichor where his eyes should have been.

Something rose in Kaya’s throat but she swallowed it and ran back to the car. She sat there, frozen at the wheel trying to figure out to do. She talked tough but she’d never really seen a dead human before, and now it was impossible to think about anything else. She was breathing faster and her heart beat quicker than usual. Was she panicking? Probably. She should probably call someone. The dibbles – that made sense. Only there was a problem – the phone’s screen was completely blank and just pushing the button harder didn’t seem to transfer any energy into it, yet she had fully charged the damn thing just a short time ago. It was only then she noticed that the street lights and everything else in the area was out too. There shouldn’t really have been any connection between her phone and all that, yet she felt there was. She didn’t know what it was as a hundred thoughts were flooding her brain then, but one suddenly stood out above all – what if the killer was still around?

There was now a heavy pitter-patter of rain on the windshield and Kaya stayed where she was, afraid to move or make a sound in case in just alerted anything out there to her presence. But then, what if it already knew where she was and was just biding its time? Only her eyes moved, left, right, in the mirror, where she saw that on the branch of a tree the rain was falling on something that wasn’t there yet gradually an outline appeared, like a clear ice sculpture of someone crouching. Then its eyes opened and it looked straight through the mirror into hers.

Kaya jumped and turned her key in the ignition. Nothing happened. She turned it again, and still nothing. After the third time she looked to the side and gasped as the creature was standing there, no longer invisible. It was a slender androgynous thing clad in some chitinous gray-brown armor with a texture like bark, with leaf-like ears protruding either side of the mouth-less helm. It reached down, getting one hand under the side of the vehicle, then proceeded to just flip it over.

Kaya braced herself as best she could as the car rolled down the hill, the shoe-boxes falling and hitting her from all directions. There was nothing she could do to stop it so she closed her eyes, gritted her teeth, and waited, until she felt a jolt and gravity seemed to be working beneath her feet again. Sure enough when she opened her eyes she saw that the car had landed on its wheels just further down the hill, on the road still as it zig-zagged its way up and down. There was no doubt in her mind anymore about what to do next – she tried the ignition again, but released the handbrake as well so the green hatchback started to trundle forward.

“C’mon, come on!” She growled as she desperately turned the key. It just needed one little spark to start the engine, but then she felt another thud and jolt and looked up to see the creature kneeling on the bonnet, its eyes locked on to hers as it drew its arm back to punch Kaya through the windscreen. The engine roared and Kaya screeched in triumph, immediately slamming it into reverse. The creature fell backwards but quickly regained its composure, somersaulting and landing on its feet in the middle of the road.

Kaya was well past shock now. She’d vaulted through horror and was focused now on running over terror. She changed gears and slammed her feet, tires squealing before the hatchback shot forward. The creature showed no sign of flinching, until at the last second it jumped like an acrobat leaping over a bull.

She lost sight of the creature and just kept accelerating, turning at the bottom of the hill but unsure where to turn next. It turned out not to matter as the roof crumpled slightly as the car shook and swerved. Kaya managed to keep it on the road but a new problem presented itself in the form of a blade punching through the roof, just missing her, then retracting. It did so several more times, Kaya sinking more and more into the drivers seat and swerving the car deliberately in an effort to shake it off. It wasn’t working so she came up with a new plan, making sure she’d fastened her seatbelt and waiting for the blade to come down again. The instant it did she sharply spun the wheel, the hatchback screeching as it slid on its side off the edge of the road, then over and over to sound of smashing glass and twisting metal.

Kaya wasn’t sure if she’d passed out or not. When she opened her eyes, she was upside down in a field. There were a couple of cows, but fortunately they were on the other side of the pasture and seemed unconcerned by her. She unlocked the door and unbuckled her seatbelt, falling onto the remains of her roof then pushing aside shoe-boxes as she started crawling out of the wreck. She yelped, cutting her hand not on glass as she immediately suspected, but on a quite substantial piece of the creatures blade that presumably had broken off. It was sharp and warm to the touch, but she had some towels and leather gloves among all the other junk in her, so wrapped her hands with both and took the blade with her, concealing it in her jacket. If the creature was still out there, or there were others, it seemed the most likely thing to be able to defend herself with. So then she crawled all the way and forced herself to stand then lean on the side of the upturned hatchback as her legs felt unsteady.

Really, it was amazing the little green car had managed to keep going as long as it had. Before long the cost to keep it running would have outweighed the cost of just replacing it with a slightly newer one, but the old girl had done well. She was a write off now though, and Kaya supposed now she really was homeless. But there was no time for a eulogy – Kaya wouldn’t feel safe until she was back in civilization surrounded by people. Lots of people.

She pushed off and staggered, then froze, her shoulder blades pulling toward each other. Of course the damn thing was going to be right behind her… she spun about, fist flying, but the creature swatted it aside then kicked back, Kaya doubling over with a whoomph as she fell on her back. Considering that it flipped over her car with no effort, it really was no surprise to her that it kicked like a horse as well, even contorted and twisted as she could now see it was. But still it kept coming toward her, popping itself back into shape as Kaya rolled and tried to crawl away on her belly. She felt her hair pulled tight and was lifted to her knees, the creature stepping around meaning to finish her with another blade.

Kaya struck first, stabbing her own blade into the creature’s wrist as it slid into the tiny gap between its forearm and hand. At the very least this surprised it and it stepped back, and driven on Kaya tackled it – despite its strength, it seemed to weigh little more than a normal person – and kept stabbing. But despite drawing a lot of blood the creature kept struggle, and surely it would only be seconds before it realized it could throw her off with ease. She didn’t know how to kill it, but then figured the brain was usually a good bet, or rather the lens where its eye would be. She stabbed there, and the creature the most harrowing, chilling howl she had ever heard. But then, finally, it was still.

Kaya rolled off, panting, but almost right away she felt that she’d spent too long resting. She didn’t really know if she’d killed it, and was too wise to get close enough again to check. Even if it was dead it might have friends who had heard that howl, so it was best she not be here if any showed up.

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