TERA LYNN CHILDS. SWEET VENOM
Medusa Girls - 1
For Shane, mentor . . . inspiration . . . friend
Hydras have a distinctive odor. It’s somewhere between the acid tang of burning hair and a boat full of rotting fish. You can smell them from miles away.
Well, you can’t. But I can.
Some beasties smell mildly unpleasant; others could peel paint. Hydras definitely fall into the latter category.
As I steer my car—Moira, named for the fickle fates as a constant reminder to take charge of mine—into a spot across from a dilapidated seafood shack, the stench is practically overwhelming. Moira’s upholstery is going to stink for a week. I pencil in taking her to the car wash on my mental to-do list, right after replacing my favorite cargo pants, which got shredded in my last fight, but before polishing the bladed weapons in the armory.
I twist the key out of the ignition and do a quick gear check: Kevlar wrist cuffs in place, smoke bombs in left cargo pocket, zip ties in the right, and my handy-dandy, military-grade, metal detector–defying, twin APS daggers snug in their sheaths and hidden inside my steel-toe Doc Martens. Nothing like a well-stocked pair of black cargoes to make me feel girly.
The hydra shouldn’t be much trouble—balancing nine heads on a massive serpent body throws off their center of gravity so they’re not exactly graceful—but it never hurts to be prepared.
Even if I ever get caught off guard, I’ve got a backup monster-fighting kit stowed under Moira’s driver’s seat and another in my backpack.
Though the gear makes things easier, all I really need to take a beastie out is the pair of retracted canines that will fang down at the first sign of trouble. They’re my built-in secret weapon. A defense legacy passed down from my ancient ancestor.
“Seriously,” I mutter as I climb out onto the sidewalk. “Can’t they give it a rest for a while? Maybe take an extended vacation somewhere cold and icy.”
This is the fourth time in the last week that the aroma of dark and nasty has pulled me out for the hunt.
One more visitor from the abyss this week and I’ll leave the gear at home and work out my annoyance with my fists. Hand-to-hand combat won’t send a monster back to its prison-realm home, but it’ll make me feel a hell of a lot better. Who says keeping the human world monster-free can’t be good therapy at the same time?
I palm the remote for Moira’s keyless entry and am about to lock her sleek, black doors when I realize I’ve forgotten one element of my monster-fighting gear that is critical, at least when I’m hunting in human-heavy territory.
“Slick, Gretchen,” I tell myself. “Real slick.”
You’d think after four years—a quarter of my life—this would be second nature.
Moments later, I’m crossing the street, my sporty mirrored sunglasses shielding my eyes. Not from the sun, of course. It’s not like hydras yearn for daylight. No, they’d rather drag me out in the middle of the night, when dives like this are the only thing open.
Darn inconsiderate when school starts tomorrow.
I walk up to the weathered wooden shack, peer through the dirt- and grime-crusted window, and scan the late-night diners. All distinctly human.
If my eyes weren’t practically tearing at the stench, I’d think the hydra wasn’t here.
Then I catch sight of the narrow staircase off to the right of the bar, leading to an upstairs dining room. Well, at least that will make cornering it easier.
As I push open the door, the combination of putrid eau de hydra and decades of fried-fish-filet residue is enough to make me nearly lose my heat-and-eat lasagna all over the sandy floor.
But I don’t have time for nausea. There’s a bloodthirsty monster prowling for a meal, and if I don’t stop it, no one will. I’m the only one who can see it.
“Anyone see a slithering nine-headed serpent pass this way?”
I snicker. I would love to see the reaction if I actually asked the question loud enough for anyone to hear.
Then again, this is San Francisco. They might not react at all.
Bypassing the drowsy bartender, I head for the staircase. Monsters generally prefer dark corners and back alleys—and, apparently, second-floor dining areas—which makes them occasionally harder to find but easier to attack. They’ll take any less-populated area that’s available, though, which is fine by me. The fewer witnesses to our fights, the better. The safer. The human world doesn’t need to know monsters walk among them. As long as I do my job right, they never will.
I’m up the stairs, three at a time, in five seconds flat. The instant I step out onto the second floor, I see it, cozying up to a trampy redhead doing her best impersonation of a low-class prostitute. Monsters have the worst taste in women.
I scan the room, checking for potential threats and exits. Besides the stairs behind me, there’s an emergency exit at the back. If I position myself behind the redhead, I’ll be able to intercept on either path.
As for threats, there’s a pair of mounted swordfish displayed on the wall and some framed pictures of deep-sea fishing boats that might hurt if used as projectiles. Nothing really to worry about.
Thankfully, the dining area is sparsely populated. Other than the hydra and its prey there is only a trio of drunken businessmen at the far end. Judging from their raucous volume and the disheveled state of their ties, odds are they’re probably pretty much oblivious to anything but the next round. If I do this right, they won’t notice a thing.
Straightening my back, I march over to the unlucky couple and tap the girl on the shoulder, making sure I’m centered between the stairs and the door.
“Can I help you?” Red snaps in a very nonsolicitous tone.
“Yes,” I reply. “You can leave.”
“Excuse me?” She crosses her arms defiantly under her chest, like I’m going to be frightened away by her aggressive boobage. “I don’t know who you think you are, but—”
With a quick flick of my wrist, I pop my sunglasses up and lean down to look her directly in the eye.
“You were just leaving,” I say, keeping my tone even.
Her eyes widen as her brain disengages. “I was just leaving,” she repeats.
Then, as if pulled by some unseen rope, she stands and crosses to the stairs, disappearing out of view. When the hypno wears off, she’ll wonder how she got wherever she’s going. But serpent-beastie will be long gone by then.
With the girl safely out of the way, I evaluate the now standing hydra. From the necks down it looks like an overgrown lizard who’s been hitting the gym. Too muscular for my taste—I don’t go for the bulging reptilian type—but I can see how some girls might want to hit that. From the necks up . . . well, whoever said two heads are better than one never met a hydra.
Too bad humans can’t see its real form.
All monsters can affect a sort of false appearance—in faerie circles known as a glamour—so their hideous, grotesque features are hidden from unsuspecting human eyes. Unfortunately for the monsters, I’m not an unsuspecting human. I’m a descendant of Medusa, and I suspect a whole heck of a lot. My eyes see their true nature, and this beastie’s true nature is a slimy, scaly, nine-headed snake. Not exactly the perfect specimen Red thought she was getting.
The hydra’s eyes lock on mine before I drop my sunglasses back into place. Too bad my freaky hypnosis power only works on humans. Then again, that would make my job way too easy. Where’s the fun in that?
“Huntress,” it snarls.
“I prefer Gretchen. But, you know.” I flash it a bored look. “Whatever.”
The freak show moves awkwardly, its undulating tail taking out a couple of chairs.
I check over my shoulder to make sure the drunken trio hasn’t noticed—they haven’t—then turn back to face my foe. It might look big and scary, but this isn’t my first hydra rodeo. I know just how to take it down.
As the freak show reaches for me, I spin right, dodging the grab and sending the monster lurching forward. With the creature off-balance, I take a well-aimed leap onto its back. It writhes, trying to throw me off. I wrap my legs around the scaly body and my arms around one of the necks and squeeze. The table goes flying. I need to hurry, before someone decides to notice all the noise.
Inching my way down its back, I lean off to one side, searching for the spot where its thick, armorlike scales give way to a softer underbelly. My fangs drop. I dive forward, sink my fangs into the tender flesh, and sigh as my snake-girl venom pours into its bloodstream.
There is no better feeling than this sweet surge of victory.
In a flash, it’s gone and I’m thudding to my knees on the floor.
Things are going to be different in San Francisco. I mean, obviously things are different—like the mega-tall buildings, the millions of people, and the predominance of concrete over grass. This town is pretty much the complete opposite of Orangevale in every way.
But I want Grace Whitfield—me—to be different too.
Frozen like a statue on the sidewalk, I stare up at the imposing facade of Alpha Academy, the private prep school whose full-scholarship offer is half the reason we’ve moved to the city. It’s a giant cube of glass and steel, a monument to modernity that makes the simple single-story stucco and Spanish tile of Orangevale High look like something from California’s prehistoric past. This building gleams shiny and new in the morning sun. The perfect place to start over. I know this is the opportunity I’ve been waiting for all my life. After sixteen years in the same small burb, going to the same schools with the same students, I finally get to be someone new. Someone not me.
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