“We gotta wear costumes,” Garrett said.
Leigh paused to shoot him a glare and then went back to strapping her knife holster onto her forearm. Nonsense like that didn’t deserve a response.
“No, seriously,” Garrett said. “Look at this neighborhood.”
Leigh glanced out the window. She and Garrett sat in a van parked on the side of the road in a middle-class suburban neighborhood. Dusk had fallen, and paper bags with tea lights lined the sidewalk to illuminate the path. Plastic skeletons, inflatable ghosts, and jack o’ lanterns decorated almost every house, only a few spoilsports here and there with their lights out to deter trick-or-treaters. All around, groups of costumed kids walked and ran with their parents.
“We don’t have any kids with us,” Garrett went on. “We’ll look like creeps walking around and staring at everybody, and that’s attention we don’t need. But if we put on costumes, people will think we’re on our way to a party.”
Oh no. He was serious, wasn’t he? Leigh couldn’t just smack him upside the head to get him to forget this ridiculous idea. She’d have to reason with him.
“We don’t have time to go costume shopping,” she said. “Sal said the portal’s already opened. The Others are out there.”
“That’s okay.” Garrett reached under the seat. “I bought some before we left.” He held up two plastic packages, gaudy fabric visible inside, and grinned. Then he tossed one to her.
Leigh stared at the package. It was a knight costume—arguably. The picture on the front showed a woman in a silver mini dress that looked vaguely like armor, a plastic sword in her hand and heeled boots on her feet. The bag didn’t contain the boots, but the sword was in there.
She glowered at Garrett. “You really shouldn’t pull crap like this when I’m carrying knives.”
He waved off her threat. “You’re always carrying knives. If I waited for you to disarm, we’d never have any fun.”
Fun. Leigh looked down at the costume. She could think of several words—many of them profane—to describe it, but “fun” wasn’t one of them.
“Come on,” Garrett said. “It’ll help us blend in. Do it for the mission.”
Leigh bit back a groan. He knew her too well; she’d do anything for the mission.
They quickly changed. Leigh was both taller and more muscular than whoever the costume designers had had in mind. The cheap fabric stretched tightly around her arms and shoulders, and the skirt ended up ridiculously short. She kept her black jeans and combat boots on under it, tore off the liability of a cape, and stuck the annoying plastic sword into her belt.
She checked her reflection. Her dark brown hair was messy from changing clothes, her blue eyes hard and angry. She looked ridiculous in the getup, but she guessed that was the point.
Then she saw Garrett.
“Your costume…” She couldn’t finish the sentence.
“Awesome, right?” Garrett held out his hands. He was a tall, handsome Black man with close-cropped hair and a scar over his left eyebrow—not that you could see any of that now. A rubber wolfman mask covered his entire head, and he wore furry, clawed gloves.
“I don’t understand how your brain words,” Leigh said.
Then she turned and strode down the street, scanning the crowd. Garrett locked the van and hurried after her.
Shrieks and laughter filled the crisp air. The night was perfect for trick-or-treating, the moon and stars visible in a cloudless sky. The Virginian neighborhood had an ideal fall climate, the leaves on every tree having changed color and begun to fall. Leigh didn’t like coming back here again. Usually, when they fought the Others in a particular place, it drove them off permanently. They moved on and opened portals in other, less risky areas.
That they’d returned to the same place worried her. What had changed?
Garrett surveyed a man in a hyper-realistic demon costume. “Halloween is really the worst night possible for this, isn’t it?”
Leigh grunted in agreement. All the children wandering around in the dark were easy prey. And with so many people dressed up as monsters, the Others didn’t even need to hide.
Two young girls skipped past in superhero costumes, probably sisters with their similar noses and curly hair. Leigh felt a knot in her throat, thinking of her own sister. She could never remember the happy times without flashing back to when the Others had taken her.
She shook herself. She needed to focus.
The darkness made it hard to examine the people passing by. Even with lanterns everywhere and most houses having their lights on, the street was shadowed. Leigh didn’t like it—too easy for the Others to slip past them.
She studied a tall figure in a hooded cloak, dismissing him when she noticed his ratty sneakers. A woman with iridescent wings drew her attention, but as she got closer, she saw they were made of fabric and wire. Another figure had a creepy, goat-like head, but he wore a t-shirt and jeans, the mask obviously rubber.
“You think they know about the holiday and chose tonight on purpose?” Garrett asked, voice muffled by his mask.
She’d never wondered if the Others understood the concept of a holiday. Did they have them in Otherworld? Leigh knew so little about what lay on the other side of the portals.
“What do you think it’s like there?” she asked. “In Otherworld, I mean.”
“Hope we never find out,” he replied.
Leigh wouldn’t mind finding out. She knew it was reckless, but a part of her wanted to go through a portal. Sure, she’d end up in a strange world of magic where everything wanted to kill her, but she could search for her sister—and slay whatever got in her way.
They walked around the neighborhood for almost thirty minutes, no closer to finding their target than when they’d first arrived.
“This isn’t working,” Garrett said finally. “Split up?”
She nodded. “I’ll head to the portal and wait. You keep walking and see if you can sniff them out.”
“Ha,” Garrett said. “Sniff. Because I’m a wolf, right?”
Leigh kept her expression blank. If she showed any kind of reaction, it would only encourage him.
He snorted. “You should see your face right now.”
“Text me if you find them first,” she replied with a sigh.
They went their separate ways, Leigh heading for the south edge of the neighborhood. The last house on the street was dark, and an empty lot lay beside it, a rope swing hanging from one of the trees. The street wasn’t crowded, and she only had to wait a few minutes to make sure nobody was watching her. Then she strode into the empty lot and entered the dense woods that spread out behind it.
The sounds of the trick-or-treaters faded as if devoured by the trees. Leaves crunched beneath her feet, the only noise in the eerie quiet. With the canopy blocking the moonlight, it was almost too dark to see, but she didn’t dare turn on her phones’ flashlight—not until she knew what was out there.
She spotted a freshly broken branch ahead, a sign someone—something—had passed that way recently. She went in that direction, her memory of the portal’s location fuzzy. After a few minutes of wandering, she felt certain enough she was alone to risk a light. About a minute after that, she found the X she’d carved into a tree near the portal last time she’d been there.
The portal wasn’t open, so she couldn’t see anything—probably a good thing, or she’d be tempted to go through. Instead, she trekked over to a boulder about eight feet away and hid behind it. The Other should come from the direction of the street with whatever poor person they’d snatched. Leigh would hear their approach. She just had to wait.
An owl hooted, and a car horn honked in the distance. The temperature felt colder in the woods than on the street, though Leigh suspected that was her imagination. Was Garrett having any better luck? He hadn’t texted, so he must not have found anything—or else he’d been attacked and hadn’t had time to send a message.
Leigh stomped down on her worry. Silly costume and bad jokes aside, Garrett was a fighter. He could handle himself.
The crunch of leaves interrupted her thoughts.
Leigh tensed. The crunching grew louder, obviously footsteps. She took out her phone. She had the brightness turned all the way down, but she still shielded the screen with her sleeve as she texted Garrett one word:
Another sound joined the footsteps: soft, sniveling sobs.
“Shut up,” said a woman’s voice.
Leigh peeked carefully around the boulder. It was easy to spot the Other: she seemed luminescent in the darkness. With wild white hair, she had patches of crystals growing on her pale skin. She wore a cloak of shimmering feathers—or perhaps the feathers were part of her body; it was hard to tell. She looked almost human otherwise, though her eyes were too large and her fingers just a little too long.
Those fingers gripped the arm of a boy no older than nine. He was dressed in a skeleton costume, tears washing off his black and white face paint in steaks.
Leigh felt her resolve harden like a sword being forged.
The Other reached the spot where the portal opened. She closed her eyes and murmured an incantation, her whispered words stirring up a wind that rustled the dead leaves.
Crap. Usually the Others tied up their captives by the portal and went back to kidnap more. This one wasn’t waiting; she was opening the portal now. Leigh didn’t have time to wait for Garrett.
She sprinted out from behind the boulder. Pulling the knife from her arm holster, she threw it without missing a step. The Other looked up, but by the time she spotted Leigh, the blade had already plunged into her shoulder.
The Other screamed.
Her mouth grew impossibly wide, teeth extending into fangs as she made an inhuman shriek. Leigh pulled a second knife from her left holster to finish the job.
Sickly green flames erupted around the Other. The boy flinched and screamed, and Leigh adjusted course. She grabbed the boy and flung him back. Then she spun—
The Other struck her. Leigh hit the dirt, the knife knocked from her hand. There was a second’s delay before pain exploded from her jaw where the Other’s fist had landed. Leigh groaned. Then spots of brightness appeared on her eyelids, and she heard the roar of flames.
Leigh rolled on instinct. Her eyes shot open just as a green fireball incinerated the leaves where she’d been lying. Heat singed her face, and she jumped up.
The Other conjured another ball of flames in her clawed hand. Leigh hit the Other’s arm with an open-palmed strike, batting it aside. She drove her elbow into the Other’s chest and felt a jolt run up her arm. The Other grunted, the flames in her hand going out, and Leigh slammed her foot into the Other’s knee.
The Other staggered but didn’t fall. She threw a sloppy punch that nicked Leigh’s shoulder—but holy crap, she was strong. The force sent Leigh stumbling back.
The Other flung another fireball.
Leigh dove to the ground, feeling the heat on her back through the costume’s fabric as the fire passed above her. She rolled and pulled another knife from her boot as she surged to her feet, flinging it at the Other.
The Other waved her hand, and the knife went flying to the side like an invisible force had struck it. Not good. Gaping maw open in a roar, the Other charged her.
Leigh pivoted and kicked the Other in the stomach, but it wasn’t enough to stop her momentum. The Other slammed into Leigh with the force of a wrecking ball, and they both crashed to the ground.
The Other landed on top. She immediately wrapped her hands around Leigh’s throat and squeezed. Leigh jerked and tried to buck her off, but the Other was sturdier than she looked. Panic grasped Leigh’s heart with its cold fingers as she struggled to inhale. She went for the pressure points on the Other’s wrists, trying to break her grip, but either the Other’s anatomy was too different or she was simply too strong. It didn’t work.
Stars danced in Leigh’s vision. Her head swam, and her chest burned. A ragged, choking sound reached her ears—from her own mouth, she realized a second later. Leigh had always figured she’d die fighting the Others; she just hadn’t counted on it happening tonight.
Visions filled her mind: her sister in a Supergirl Halloween costume; the monstrous, horse-headed Other who’d abducted her; a pale, inhuman face twisted in a snarl… Wait, that last one was real. The Other looked murderous, black blood dripping from the wound in her shoulder, Leigh’s knife still lodged in her flesh. Leigh had to focus. She had to…
The boy wailed, a heartbroken sound of pure terror that shocked Leigh’s body like electricity.
She had to save him. She couldn’t let him get taken like Anna.
Leigh’s hands groped the ground around her, searching for a weapon. All she felt were dry leaves and cool dirt. Did she have another knife on her? She couldn’t remember. Her skull felt like it was filled with sludge. She—
Her fingers brushed the hilt of the plastic sword tucked into her belt, and she knew what she had to do.
She yanked the sword free. If she’d had any air, she would’ve groaned. Garrett would never let her live this down. The cheap plastic prop wasn’t nearly sharp enough to hurt anyone—unless you jabbed it into their eye, which was exactly what Leigh did.
The Other shrieked and jerked back, clutching her left eye. Leigh surged up and headbutted her in the nose. She felt the crunch of cartilage, and hot, black blood splattered onto her face. The Other’s shrieked turned strangled, and Leigh managed to slide out from under her as she flailed.
Leigh tried to stand, but her head spun. She fell back to the ground, dizzy from lack of air. The Other lurched up, pure hate in her eyes.
A twig snapped behind Leigh. The Other looked over her head, and Leigh turned around.
Garrett stood there. He pulled the silly wolfman mask off his head and lifted his chin in greeting. “’Sup.”
Then he shifted.
The darkness shrouded his transformation. He was a man one second, a massive wolf with gleaming golden eyes the next. He ran forward, jumped over Leigh, and pounced on the Other with a snarl.
Leigh pushed herself to her feet, swaying but managing to keep her balance. Garrett and the Other wrestled on the ground in a fury of teeth and claws. Then the Other erupted in green flames again.
Garrett sprung back, growling. Was he burnt? Leigh couldn’t tell. The fire made her squint, its green light glinting off something shiny on the ground.
One of her knives.
Leigh grabbed it, took aim, and threw.
Her movement drew the Other’s attention—too late. Her knife struck the Other’s throat.
The Other stared at her, black blood gushing down her white dress, and collapsed.
Leigh breathed heavily and stared at the corpse for several long moments. Was the Other really dead? It looked like it, but Leigh wouldn’t feel completely at ease until they’d burned the body.
Garrett shook himself and shifted back into his human form. He looked from the plastic sword on the ground to Leigh and opened his mouth.
She raised a hand in warning. “Don’t you say a word.”
• • •
Sal met up with them twenty minutes later having successfully finished his own hunt. The old man crouched in front of the boy they’d rescued and put a hand to his painted forehead. Sal’s fingertips glowed as he murmured a spell to wipe the boy’s memory.
Leigh would have argued once, but she’d accepted it was better this way. The memories would traumatize the boy for life. Nobody would ever believe him if he said he’d seen a monster.
Just like nobody had believed Leigh. Not until Sal and Garrett.
Once they’d guided the boy out of the woods, they burned the Other’s body. It didn’t take long thanks to Sal’s magical fire, but the noxious fumes made them cough. Then they headed toward the street, and Leigh cast one last backward glance at where the portal would have opened.
“Any idea why the Others are changing their pattern?” she asked Sal in a low voice.
He ran a hand through his grizzled hair. “Theories but nothing concrete.”
“Then we may need to change too,” she said. “If they keep this up, playing defense isn’t going to cut it anymore.”
He nodded but didn’t reply, his weathered face grim.
They emerged from the trees, and Sal looked Leigh and Garrett over in the yellow light of the streetlamps. She thought he was checking them for injuries until his mouth quirked.
“Thank you,” Garrett said. “Leigh doesn’t appreciate them. I bought you one too. Didn’t realize we’d be splitting up.”
Sal smiled. “Dare I ask what it is?”
Wizard costume,” Garrett answered. “Shiny robe, pointy hat—the works.”
“Ah,” Sal said. “Of course. We’re all dressing up as ourselves.”
Leigh snorted. “But I’m not a knight.”
Sal’s eyebrows rose, and Garrett scoffed.
“Sure,” Garrett said. “It’s not like you charge into battle against monsters and rescue the innocent or anything.”
Leigh frowned. That was a romanticization of their dangerous, thankless work, but…
She bumped her shoulder against his as they walked, knowing he’d hear the thank-you she couldn’t say aloud. “It’s still a tacky costume.”
He grinned. “So I’m guessing you don’t want to crash one of these parties then?”
They walked through the neighborhood, and Leigh didn’t look toward the portal again. She’d come back someday. It might take a while to convince Sal, and she might be doomed to failure, but she intended to bring the fight to the Others’ home turf.
Every knight needed a quest, right?
Hope you enjoyed the story! If you haven’t read my Dark and Otherworldly series, this takes place before book 1, Poison and Honey.