It’s not easy being a modern-day damsel in distress.
This week’s story is a touch longer, so if you want to download a .mobi or .epub file and take it to go, scroll to the end for the link.
The lobby of the Royal Arms Hotel is so very quiet, and I can taste the hunt in the air. Not that I’d planned on hunting. I only stepped inside out of the rain. Still, the thought tempts me. I don’t know what sort of shadow creature lives in this space, but considering the marble floors and gilt-edged mirrors, the prize might be worth the effort.
The glimmer has lulled the concierge to sleep. He slumps over his desk, snores rattling loose paper. The doorman has sunk to the floor. With the sun about to set, that leaves me, the creature, and possibly another tracker as the only ones awake. I take a few steps further in, boots skidding against the marble, not fully committing to the hunt. Not yet.
There must be another tracker. Someone must have a claim on this space, and I know I shouldn’t venture any farther. But there’s no denying DNA, and the shadow creature that resides here is calling to me. So I blow a goodnight kiss to the concierge and find the stairs.
* * *
In the third floor hallway, I breathe in dust, fingertips investigating the textured wallpaper. I remain silent and try to gauge whether that creaking floorboard gave me away.
Something always gives me away—a floorboard, the squeaking soles of my boots, a rather clumsy entrance that involves breaking glass. That’s all fine when I’m prepared to hunt. Tonight I only wanted a peek.
Behind me, something rasps, brief and brisk, like sandpaper against skin. Mist fills the far end of the corridor, swallowing the glow from the sconces. I squint, but the shadow creature hasn’t reached its full, solid form. For this, I am grateful. I race, carving a zigzag path along the corridor. I rattle one doorknob, then another, all of them locked.
At this point, the creature is still mostly vapor. You could poke your fingers through it. But then, you can poke your fingers through a thundercloud. That doesn’t make the lightening less deadly.
I sprint down the hall, intent on the last door. I try the knob, then spin, my back against the textured wallpaper. No stairs, not even a fire exit. That’s got to be a code violation. At the end of the hall, strands of gray mist probe tentatively. Something that resembles a claw solidifies and holds its shape long enough to tear a hole in the carpet.
Frantic, I try the door one last time. Three things happen. The creature surges forward, filling the hallway with its girth, the door flies open, and I tumble inside. I kick the door shut, my boots and the creature simultaneously slamming against the wood. The door frame shakes but stays put.
The room is dark, curtains drawn. My own ragged breathing fills the space, as does someone else’s. I’m staggering to my feet when the lights blaze on. I flinch, cover my eyes with one hand, and attempt to protect myself with the other.
“What the hell?” a voice says.
And then I know: I’m really in trouble.
I grope for a chair and whirl it so it becomes both a shield and a weapon.
“I was here first,” the voice says. The tone is strong, authoritative, but a hint of fear invades the arrogance. We all carry that in our voice, those of us who hunt. You can’t touch the shadows without them touching you.
“Says who?” I counter. True, I hadn’t planned on hunting tonight. Now that I’m here? Why let the opportunity slip by?
“Luke Milner,” he says. “Tracker number 127.”
“I know who you are.” Or at least what he is. There are so few of us that we know each other by reputation, if not by name and face.
“I’ve been tracking this creature for weeks,” he says. “It’s on record, claim 5867. Feel free to check.”
“Oh, I will.” I roll my eyes.
“Plus, you totally fell in here.” He shakes his head. “You don’t even know your way around.”
I grip the chair harder. “Oh, sure,” I say. “I fell in here. I also flushed out the creature. In what? Less than an hour? How long have you been tracking it again?” I make my voice go all sweet, which is perfectly awful of me. But I can’t help it. I dislike most other trackers. Like I said before, it’s in my DNA. As a damsel in distress, I have good reason not to like or trust nearly everyone.
“Know the way back out?” Here, Luke Milner offers up a perfectly awful grin, providing me with yet another reason for my aversion.
While logic dictates that if you can find your way in, you can certainly find your way back out again, shadow creatures have a way of erasing that sort of logic. I do have a knack for flushing them out—and an annoying knack for getting stuck in various labyrinths for days. Normally I don’t go in without a plan and a week’s worth of supplies. The hotel room is covered with that same velvet wallpaper as the hall, all fleurs-de-lis and scrollwork, which makes the space feel elegant despite the freeze-dried meals and canned goods that line the dresser. Luke even has an adorable little camp stove. Plus that queen-size bed? Big enough for two. Not a bad setup, and I can’t help but be a little impressed.
He waves his hands as if he can halt both my gaze and my thoughts. “Oh, no. Don’t even think about it. My claim. My creature.”
“Which you can’t seem to flush,” I remind him.
The trashcan overflows with wrappers and bottles. A room service tray holds a pot of coffee and pitcher of cream. One whiff tells me it’s starting to turn. He’s been here for a while without any luck. It’s hard to catch a shadow creature on your own; it’s even harder to trust another tracker. He can’t leave the hotel without risking a claim jumper. But why stay if you can’t draw out the creature to begin with?
“You saw it then?” he asks.
“Claws. Sharp. Not sure what it is, but it’s big.” I shrug. “Maybe a dragon.”
He pauses as if considering this—and me. “What makes you so special, then?”
It’s a fair if somewhat passive-aggressive question. “I come from a long line of damsels in distress.”
“Shall I step into the hall and demonstrate?” I gesture toward the door. All hunts require bait. Usually, that’s me. I survey the room again. This Luke Milner doesn’t seem to have anything that resembles bait.
“You don’t look like a damsel in distress.”
True. I keep my feet in boots. You try running around in satin slippers or high heels. Tulle and lace and all the rest? Highly flammable, especially in the case of dragons.
“It’s in the blood,” I say. “Did I not fall in here exactly when I needed to?”
“I was opening the door.”
“See? You must have some latent knight-in-shining-armor blood running through your veins.”
Luke makes a face.
Okay, very latent. But it’s there. He’s too well-stocked and prepared to be anything else. In theory, I should like that in anyone. Plus, he has that knight-in-shining-armor look, wavy hair and features chiseled in all the right places. His eyes might glint with humor if he weren’t so surly. Something tells me Luke Milner is often surly.
I’ve never had any luck with knights in shining armor. They’re always too little, too late, and I always end up bound ankle and wrist, eyebrows singed.
Luke narrows his eyes to slits. I cross my arms over my chest, prepared to wait him out. He glances away, but in the mirror, I catch his reflection—all sour milk and resignation.
“Do you have a name?” he says at last, “or do they just call you CJ?”
“C … J?”
His smirk provides the answer. CJ. Claim Jumper.
“I’m Posey Trombelle,” I say, putting some teeth into my name. “Tracker number 278.”
“Posey?” He makes another face.
“It’s short for Poinsettia. I was a Christmas baby.”
His expression goes blank. When he doesn’t respond, I add, “My sister was born in February, on the fourteenth. Trust me, she got it worse.”
“Well, what do you suggest we do … Posey?”
“What were you about to do when I fell into your room?”
“Go out,” he says. “Reconnaissance.”
I raise an eyebrow. Because that? Fairly obvious.
Luke rubs his hands across his face. A growl begins in his throat, but the sound is all frustration without any bite. “I have a theory,” he says, “that there’s more treasure to be had by not slaying the creature —
“Because most of it is in the lair,” I finish.
Oh, of course! How clever. Once you slay the creature, access to any treasure in its lair vanishes. I can’t help it. I like the way he thinks. Maybe this Luke has more knight in him than his sour-milk expression suggests.
“You figure out how to do that,” I tell him, “and they’ll have to call you Sir Luke.”
* * *
Luke stares at the document on the coffee table, pen clutched in his hand.
“You can’t do this without me,” I point out.
His knuckles go white.
Granted, a handwritten agreement on hotel stationery pales when compared to a notarized contract. Under the circumstances?
“In fact,” I say, tapping three paragraphs down on the paper, “you can’t get a better deal than this.”
No one would intentionally draw a creature to them, but I’ve signed on to do just that. Of course, I’m uniquely suited for the task. But while Luke searches out the lair, I must fend off the creature. While I often find myself in precarious situations, I seldom walk into them of my own volition. At least not while leaving myself wide open for betrayal. I occupy the creature, and he runs off with the treasure. I try not to think about that scenario too much.
At last his grip loosens on the pen. He scrawls his name across the bottom of the page, nearly obliterating my own.
Next comes a grappling hook and some rope, which Luke secures at my waist. He threads a whistle onto a length of nylon cord. He ties the ends and then places the whistle around my neck.
“Last resort,” he says. “If you need me—”
He cringes. An angry flush covers his cheeks. Before he can turn away, I touch his arm. “Hang on.”
From the depths of my cargo pants pocket, I pull a bandana. “A knight shouldn’t venture out without a token,” I say and tie it around his arm. As tokens go, one-hundred-percent cotton is no substitute for silk, lace, and embroidery. However, the bandana is pink.
“Seriously?” Luke eyes the bandana. His fingers twitch over the knot like he might undo the whole thing and toss it on the floor. Instead, he presses his palm against his jeans and sighs.
“See if it doesn’t bring you luck,” I say.
“I don’t believe in luck.”
“You should.” I give him a two-finger salute and slip out the door.
* * *
I take soft steps down the hallway, retracing my original path. I even zigzag, fingertips brushing the textured wallpaper on one side of the corridor and then the next. The ventilation system breathes to life, its steady, mechanical hum the only other sound.
At the corner, I pause. Things are too empty, too quiet. The space around me feels thin, like something else is using up all the available oxygen. Something large. The elevator lobby is the perfect place for an ambush. At least, it’s where I’d set one up.
The marble floors in front of the elevator sport a faux Persian rug, a Queen Anne side table, and chairs upholstered in the most amazing shade of canary yellow. The space is pristine. I sniff the air. No lingering scent of sulfur, no rot. What about some slime, a tuft of fur, or even a scale on the floor? Nothing? I taste the air one last time, not trusting this good fortune, but my feet are already moving. To hesitate is to lose this chance.
I rush to the elevators, push the up and down buttons, then retreat to the safety of the stairs.
No sensible tracker uses the elevator—not if they can help it. It’s the equivalent of stepping into a lunchbox. Still, it’s a handy ruse. A damsel in distress inside an elevator? There’s no better bait.
The elevator bell chimes. The doors whoosh open. Dark mist spills out, and a roar echoes against the walls, the sound hearty. The creature must be on the verge of transforming into something solid—and deadly. I’m half a step inside the stairwell when mist curls around the handrail and engulfs my fingers. I glance at the gleaming claws clicking against the lobby floor, then behind me to the creature forming on the stairs.
Here be dragons. Not one, but two. And here I am, right between them.
I cast my gaze upward, searching for a handhold, a window or vent to crawl through … or that chandelier.
The elevator doors start to close, then spring open again. The creatures are solid enough to trigger elevator doors, not to mention claw, bite, and chomp. They are certainly solid enough to do a damsel-in-distress grab-and-dash.
You know, the usual.
With a hand on the grappling hook, I squint at the chandelier. Will it come crashing down on me mid-swing, effectively doing all the bone-crushing work for the dragons? Steam fills the elevator lobby area. The dragons won’t risk a full blast and burn themselves out of their playground. But a stream of fire in my direction?
I don’t wait to find out. I swing the grappling hook up and over the chandelier’s arms. Light bulbs shatter. I tug. Cracks appear along the ceiling. Plaster dust floats down, fogging the air and coating the floor, the table, the dragon. Before I can swing, a great sucking comes from the elevator—a wind tunnel drawing me in. I grip the rope and brace my feet against the floor. Then the winds reverse.
The explosion of sound startles me. No heat. No fire. Just slime.
“Gesundheit,” I say and swing up and over the sniffling dragon.
I land in the hallway, carpet soaking up the sound of my boots. Iridescent dragon snot speckles the textured wallpaper and coats the toes of my boots. I yank the rope one last time. The entire chandelier and half the ceiling crash to the floor. I sprint around the corner to avoid ricocheting debris. Even so, I choke on dust. My eyes water. I blink fast and hard, taste the grit against my lips. At the end of the hallway, a door flies open.
Luke sticks his head out. “What the hell?”
I give him a little finger wave and run.
* * *
Only underwater lamps light the pool area, bathing everything in a liquid blue. My boots squish against damp tile. Moist air clings to my face, turning the plaster dust into muck. With my back to the wall, I ease the lifesaving pole from its bracket. Since Luke’s grappling hook is now part of the third-floor decor, I need something—a tool, a weapon. I test its weight against my palm. Light but strong. It will do.
Now that I’m here, I have the thankless job of luring both dragons to this spot. That shouldn’t be too hard. After all, I’m a damsel in distress. Luring is what I do. I take mincing steps around the pool and coo stupid things like, “Oh, no, I might get my satin slippers all wet.”
I’ve never met a creature yet who could tell the difference between satin slippers and steel-toed boots.
Minutes tick by with nothing but the gentle lap of water and my damp footfalls. This was the plan. We didn’t have a backup plan in case the creatures didn’t show. I’m a damsel in distress. They always show.
Except for now.
I kneel at the pool’s edge and rinse the plaster from my face. Perhaps it’s the water’s chemical cocktail—too much bleach and chlorine—that convinces me, but nothing supernatural ever happens in this particular space.
But if the creatures didn’t follow me (and they should have, they really should have—I should be trussed up now, tied to the diving board or cooking in the hot tub), then there’s only one other spot they could be: their lair.
Which is where Luke was headed—without any backup plan of his own. Can I intercept him? I glance at my watch. Plenty of time before sunrise. Still enough time to—possibly—save Luke. Without another thought, I sprint past the heated towel rack and lounge chairs and crash into the glass doors separating the pool from the mezzanine.
I push. I pull. I rattle the handles so hard the glass shudders. Then I see a telltale glint on the other side of the doors. A dragon scale. I whirl and face the pool. What will it be? Damsel-in-Distress Stew? Or perhaps Luke is the main course, and I’m dessert.
Panic and chlorine clog my throat. Another way out—there must be one. I slip across damp tiles, careen into the changing room doors. These, too, are locked. I survey the space—the lounge chairs, discarded drink glasses with pink sludge and crushed paper umbrellas, a stack of rumpled towels—and discover a way out.
I find the service elevator behind a screen. Steam hisses and clouds roll through the room, as if the water in the pool is already boiling. I wonder if the dragons plan to serve me al dente. As soon as the doors screech open, I jump inside, press every button I can, and realize I’m still clutching the lifesaving pole only when the doors clang shut.
* * *
I land in the most obvious spot for a lair, down in the basement. The dank and dark, home to boilers and furnaces and the creatures most everyone else has forgotten. Only in this case, it seems the creatures have forgotten this space. Then again, these are dragons—by their very nature, quirky and particular. In this case, there’s a pair. A couple, perhaps?
Oh. A couple. Of course. I push the up button on the elevator. There’s no time for stairs. I can only hope I’m right and don’t end up as a charbroiled snack. When the doors open, I step inside and select the modern equivalent of the high tower: the penthouse suite.
You’d think, as a damsel in distress, I’d be well acquainted with penthouse suites. Sadly, my luck runs toward trolls and ogres. On the rare occasions I’m captured, I end up in landfills or junkyards or, for the occasional eco-conscious goblins, recycling centers.
The doors open on the penthouse level. Smoke fills the elevator compartment. The acrid scent tickles the back of my throat, and I choke on a cough. I step out and crunch something beneath the sole of my boot. The remains shine in rainbow patterns the way only a dragon scale can.
I take a cautious look around. The glimmer is in full force here. Despite the smoke, I can taste the magic that lets the dragons lie dormant during the day and come out to play at night. They haven’t taken over the entire floor, not yet, but the lair is well established.
I creep forward, pole outstretched like a spear, eyes cast downward. The last thing I want is to track through a pile of ash. That can mean only one thing. The tracker community may be combative, but the death of one of our own weighs heavy. My stomach squeezes tight. I clutch the pole harder. I want to close my eyes, because I don’t want to see that pile of ash. I keep them open out of fear and respect.
At the end of the hall, I brush fingertips over the penthouse door then press my palm against the paneled wood. Warm, but not searing hot. That’s something. Now for a distraction. I need something loud and sure, something these dragons won’t miss.
I lean against the wall, and that something thumps against my chest. Luke’s whistle. I grip it between my teeth and blow with all my might. Then I sprint down the corridor and launch myself behind a settee. The hiding place is flimsy. But once dragons get up a good gallop, they have a difficult time stopping, never mind turning around.
The penthouse door flies open. Claws scrape against the Italian marble floor, leaving wide grooves in its surface. The dragons galumph straight for the elevator, bypassing the settee. I crawl from beneath it, scrabble to gain purchase, then race for the penthouse.
I slam the door. It doesn’t matter if the dragons hear. They’re too clever to stay fooled for long anyway. Still, I throw the deadbolt for the slight delay it will give me. For good measure, I jam the lifesaving pole behind the handle.
“Luke?” I call out.
A grunt comes from the bedroom. Among satin sheets, rose petals, and candlelight, I find him, all trussed up, bound ankle and wrist, damsel-in-distress style. He grunts again, words muffled by a pink bandana—my bandana—gagging his mouth. So much for luck.
I can’t help it; I know it’s cruel. I laugh.
“You wouldn’t happen to have a knife, would you?” he says when I undo the gag, a frown fighting the relief on his face.
“Swiss Army.” I slice through the ropes around his wrists and set to work on his ankles.
A crash reverberates through the entire penthouse. My hands shake and the blade skitters up and over the rope, but it only catches on Luke’s jeans. A whoosh fills the air, followed by the cheerful crackle of burning wood.
“We have all of three seconds,” Luke says.
In those three seconds, I hack away the last of the rope. Luke smashes the window with a chair. He secures a grappling hook (one covered with plaster dust) and swings us—me clutched in one arm—out the window, past jagged glass, and over the ledge.
We land one story below, breezing through an already-opened window. When our feet touch ground, Luke releases me. I tumble into yet another canary yellow chair, knocking it over. I suck in air free of smoke, grateful for the hard floor that has just bruised my hip bones. As landings go, this one wasn’t half-bad. I catch Luke’s eye and point to the window.
“I like to go in with a back-up plan,” he says.
An admirable quality for a knight in shining armor.
“You’re pretty handy with a knife,” he adds.
“You’re not bad with ropes.”
The building trembles. Plaster rains down, dusting my skin—again. The elevator doors pop open and shut.
“We should leave,” I say. “They’ll destroy everything just to get to us.”
Even their own playground. Threat to their treasure brings out the nasty side of shadow creatures.
To my surprise, Luke takes my hand to help me up. He keeps a grip on it during our entire flight down the stairs. Even outside, with the first rays of sun banishing the night, he doesn’t let go. He pulls us forward, intent on getting us away, while I scan the structure.
“All clear?” he asks.
“Looks that way. For now.”
Four blocks from the hotel, we slow our steps. I keep the vigil, always tossing a quick glance behind. With the rising sun, the glimmer loosens its hold. The dragons will return to mist and shadows. The hotel will right itself before any of the regular guests can notice anything amiss. Already, glass in the smashed windows has repaired itself.
“I never thought to look in the penthouse until you came along,” Luke says.
I inspire thoughts of the penthouse? Is this a good thing?
“The living room was the treasure trove, but I decided to check the bedroom before leaving,” he continues. “I walked in on them while they were … I mean, he was—”
“Entertaining a special lady friend?” I supply.
A flush washes across his cheekbones—a hint of pink to match the sunrise. It’s kind of adorable.
“Yeah.” He clears his throat. “That.”
Luke pulls a small velvet sack from his shirt. “By our contract.” He tips the bag and coins flow into his palm. “Fifty-fifty split. You earned it.”
“So did you.”
“It wasn’t all bad,” he says, “working with you.”
Is that a compliment? I peer at him, intrigued. “Well, you are good with ropes,” I say. “And I don’t loathe you like I do most knights in shining armor.”
He tosses the coins in the air and catches them neatly again. “When was the last time you earned a haul like this?”
Almost never. Damsels in distress always get the short end of things, even when we’re the ones who make things happen. I can’t count the number of times my fellow trackers have left me bound, wrist and ankle, and made off with the treasure. Even though my boots are singed and snot covered, my hair a plaster-streaked mess, this time, the prize was worth it. This time, I had a worthy partner.
“There’s a lot more where this came from.” Luke stares hard just past my shoulder, like the only way he can say this is to not look at me. “We could spend days, weeks, and still not find it all.”
We? “So you’re not reporting me as a claim jumper?”
His lips twitch. “Well, you know, I can’t seem to flush them on my own.”
“That’s my specialty.”
“We’d need a contract.”
I nod toward a diner at the end of the block. They serve a huge breakfast special—eggs over easy, sizzling bacon, pancakes drenched in maple syrup—the perfect meal after a night of successful tracking.
“Everyone knows a contract written on the back of a paper placemat is totally binding,” I say. “We could talk about it. Maybe over some coffee?”
The sun crests the hotel, casting the street in a glow to rival the canary yellow furniture, banishing the creatures to shadow for another day. We turn toward the diner. Luke tosses the coins and lets them fall into his hand one last time.
“Maybe we should,” he says.
Knight at the Royal Arms was first published in Pulp Literature Summer 2017: Issue 15.
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