Chapter Nineteen

Marisol looked back over her shoulder to see Udo gaining on her with his lopsided, ground-eating gait. She couldn’t be sure in the dark, but he actually seemed bigger still, his body swollen, his joints wrenched and twisted until his shaped had become something grotesque. Udo bellowed again with his strange voice, somehow neither human nor animal.

“Keep running,” Marisol gasped, but Udo was even closer now, close enough that she could hear the slap of his feet on the cobblestones.

Marisol skidded to a halt and turned, her sword up, but now Marisol wasn’t entirely sure she could hurt him. He seemed big enough that she might bury her sword in his barrel chest without him even knowing.

Udo slowed slightly, still lumbering towards Marisol, but at a slightly more measured pace, and it was clear that something had happened to him. The twisted cant to his shoulders, the length of his arms, the tortured shape of his legs, none of it was illusion. His warped body strained against the leather that he wore. His knife was forgotten by his side, but his hands – stretched, vast, contorted things that no longer had fingers so much as a nest of black hooks – seemed equally capable of doing harm. His left eye was bugged and bloodshot, his right eye narrow and gleaming. His rictus of a smile revealed huge teeth, some flat, crooked slabs, others long and curved like fangs, surrounded by a forest of thick, wiry black hair.

What was the circle of his arms to her, what were the chords that would lead to his heart?  There seemed to be nothing but gnashing teeth and claws. What use could the Destreza be against something like this?

He howled and lunged forward, seemingly unafraid of Marisol’s sword. She leapt back, only narrowly escaping his grasping hands, his thick claws skittering on the stone walls of the houses that confined the two of them. Udo lashed out again, growling like an animal, never hesitating, never pausing to consider – he was a whirlwind of gnashing teeth and grasping claws, while Marisol was wrong-footed and had to scramble back out of his reach again and again. Udo’s body was still warping; in the dark, Marisol could see his flesh running like water, could hear the sound of bones snapping as he swung at her, could hear his jaw crack as he lunged towards her and tried to bite her face with those huge awful teeth.

Udo swung again and bore Marisol to the ground; she just managed to bring her sword up, and his wild fist impaled itself on the sword’s point. Udo howled and retreated, smearing blood from his wounded hand on the wall, glaring at her with his mismatched, misshapen eyes. He snapped at her face again and Marisol cut at his cheek, scoring a thin red line below his glaring eye.

The cut brought the twisted man-beast up short and something like confusion crossed its malformed face as it examined its bloody hand and touched the cut on its cheek. Marisol struggled to her feet and kept her sword between the two of them. Udo was huge now, breathing like a bellows, with thick veins standing out on his neck and face; his shoulders brushed the sides of the alley. Despite his size and bestial shape, despite his aggression, she still didn’t want to kill him, though. She was scared of him, but she didn’t hate him, and it didn’t feel right to kill a man she didn’t hate.

She couldn’t let him continue after her, so she thrust at his knee, only half-conscious that it seemed bent painfully backwards now, as though it had broken and been re-set improperly. Udo dodged back on twisted legs that looked like they ought to be incapable of support his weight at all, much less moving his misshapen bulk so nimbly. Marisol redoubled, stretching out in a long lunge, recklessly trying for Udo’s twisted leg, but his gnarled fingers intercepted the thrust and gripped the sword, tried to pull it from her hands.

Marisol jerked it away and Udo shrieked as the blade cut his hand. This would not last, Marisol knew, as she leapt away from a new flurry of heavy blows and gnashing teeth. She couldn’t wound him to stop him, not unless she wanted to kill him…

When she saw the fox dart by Udo’s feet, Marisol followed it without thinking. Udo lumbered after her, but the fox was spry and quick. It led her down a steep street and then quickly switched back – Udo’s massive bulk sent him careening down the slippery cobblestones while he tried to slow himself. Marisol gained some ground as she followed the fox through Toledo.

The fox took some route through the city, and Marisol had no space to wonder if it was planned or just a small animal’s instinct for evading a large one. It took sharp corners and narrow alleys until Marisol was sure she was lost, sure she would never find her way back again.

But the shape of a house, crook of a window, a cornice, a chimney, each tickled at her memory until she realized that she did know where she was, she had been here before. The fox was gone now, it had left her alone in this little familiar square, and now Marisol had a few breaths to doubt if she had even seen it, if only her own mind had led her back here.

A few breaths, and no longer. Udo burst into the alley, huffing and puffying and growling, barely recognizable as a man at all, but neither was a beast, instead some torn and twisted, monstrous thing, deformed by some strange miracle.

With teeth like knives and claws like iron hooks, he lunged for her. Marisol retreated farther into the alley, until her back was against the man in brass armor, with clay skin etched with words. The golem.

“Wake up!” She cried. “Wake up! Help me!”

Udo lashed out at her and Marisol barely managed to spring clear. The golem remained impassive, still as any stone. Had Julio César lied to her? Perhaps the golem could not come to life at all.

The beast-man lunged again, driving Marisol farther from the ruddy torch and the brass-armored simulacrum beneath it. There was nothing for it Marisol realized. She would have to kill the best.

She struck out with her sword, once, twice. She lashed first at Udo’s face, then at his flank, finally thrusting deep towards his chest. The beast-man twisted his malformed body, just enough that Marisol’s sword sank deep into his arm. He howled again and surged forward, twisting Marisol’s sword from her grip, keep it trapped fast in his gnarled limb.

Marisol was defenseless now, no sword, no fox, no golem. She slid across the ground beneath Udo’s lashing claws, then leapt to her feet and banged on the door of one of the houses.

“Help!” She called out. “Help me!”

No one answered, and Marisol fell away from Udo again.

“What do I do? How do I make it work?”

Again his teeth gnashed and again she fell away.

“How do I wake it up?”

Udo raked his claws through the air, missing her face by inches. By a stroke of ill luck, his black talons hooked into the shutter of a window, and tore it from its frame.

When this happened, there came a deep thrumming sound, as though a titanic guitar string, taught beneath the streets of Toledo, had been plucked by a giant’s hand. The bronze-armored golem shuddered to life and leapt forward.

It took Udo by surprise and seized him by the wrists. White teeth and black talons gnashed against the brass armor, tearing deep gouges but not harming the golem. The golem shifted its grip and took Udo in a bear hug, holding him tight, as immovable as a stone. The action dislodge the sword from the beast-man’s arm, and it clattered to the stony street.

Udo howled again, and Marisol saw three men coming down the alley, carrying torches. They wore long beards and long black robes, and sashes covered in a writing she did not recognize. One man carried a censer by its chains. It billowed bright smoke around them.

One of the men spoke a word and Marisol felt a bone-deep weariness spring upon her like a hungry animal. The last thing she recalled was reaching out for her sword where it had fallen, before she passed into a strange and dreamless slumber.