Sam’s life flashed before her eyes.
Age six: eating spicy fajitas around the dinner table with her momma, papa, big sis, and little bro.
Age thirteen: firing a heavy Colt Single Action Army revolver at the shooting range of the Mexico City Police station with her dad while her big sister got to go salsa dancing at the dance hall. Apparently, since her big sister was too girly and her little brother was too young, she was to become the second man of the house. She wished she could go salsa dancing too.
Age sixteen: trading gunfire with cartel hitmen while paddling her family across the Rio Grande in a rubber dinghy, her dad bleeding out beside her.
Age eighteen: receiving her gold star badge from Instructor Mendez at the San Antonio Police Training Academy graduation ceremony.
Age twenty-one: watching her squadmates get stabbed to death by men in hoods while she hides inside the broom closet at the Alamo.
Present: Girl Scout’s knife neared Coco’s throat.
If Sam didn’t do something, Coco was going to die! But what could she do?! She had no fingers! What’s worse, she was a coward!
But why was she a coward?!
Age five: her papa pointing to a rat being chased by their housecat. The housecat corners the rat, but the rat bites the housecat’s paw and escapes through a rathole in the wall.
‘You see that, Sam?’ says her papa. ‘To survive in this world, you must be like that rat. Run away from danger whenever you can, and only fight when you are cornered.’
‘Yes, papa,’ says Sam.
Present: the whole world is a corner! There’s nowhere to run away!
She felt her blood boiling. The adrenaline was rushing through her veins like the lightning rushing through the sky. What was it Colonel Ripper had said? That in order to enter the Zone, you needed to visualise yourself as an element that was both unstoppable and indestructible. Sam knew of only one thing like that: a twister that had almost snatched her house away when she was three years old.
Sam shouted the word everything she had. ‘Tornado!’
The dark, cold forest became vibrant with explosive colour and wet heat. She could hear the hissing hunger of the snakes, she could smell the sweet sensuality of the flowers, she could taste the salty fear of the humans. She had thought using the King in Yellow’s black magic would be a corrupting thing, but it wasn’t; it was Man’s supernatural return to nature.
Sam had entered the Zone.
Wind twisted around her body. Fresh fingers burst from her palms. She pulled a hatchet from her backpack, charged it with the power of wind, and hurled it at Girl Scout. The projectile struck Girl Scout in the chest so hard she went spinning head over heels into a tree.
Sam stood up. ‘I’d say pick on someone your own size, but you’re five-foot nothing, so how’s about you bake me some cookies before I eat you?’
Girl Scout lifted her legs and sprang up. ‘Storm!’
Dark clouds and lightning coiled around her body. Of course, an A-list slasher like her knew how to enter the Zone too.
Girl Scout blocked a nostril and blew blood out of the other one. ‘Now you’ve really done it!’
Sam and Girl Scout grabbed their hatchets and throwing knives in both hands, powered them with wind and electricity, and dashed them at each other again and again and again, their tornado and storm auras turning the projectiles aside. Soon, they only had two weapons in their hands each. Sam liked her chances in close-quarter combat; she was skinny, but she was a twenty-one-year-old woman, whereas as skilled as Girl Scout was, she was still a thirteen-year-old girl. Seemingly coming to the same conclusion, Girl Scout attached the rings on the butts of her throwing knives to thin chains and wrapped them around her wrists. Sam had prepared the same insurance in case she ever ran out of projectiles to throw, and did the same with her hatchets. They swiped at each other from long range in a ballet of clashing steel and dancing flesh. It wasn’t long, though, before Girl Scout’s shorter limbs had her on the backstep.
‘You can’t beat me!’ said Girl Scout. ‘I’m a third generation killing machine! You’re nothing but a dirty coward who only fights when her back’s against the wall!’
‘Yeah,’ said Sam. ‘But the walls have closed in as far as they’ll go, so you’re in a rathole now, kitty cat.’
Sam slashed at Girl Scout horizontally from both sides.
Girl Scout ducked. ‘Missed!’
The tree behind her creaked and began to fall. Girl Scout looked over her shoulder with wide eyes.
Sam turned around and walked away. ‘Take a hike, Girl Scout.’
The tree crashed behind her.
Coco was sitting where Sam had left her. No cuts, no bruises, but eyes wide with fear. When Sam approached, she backed off. ‘Don’t hurt me! Please!’
Sam put her hatchets in her backpack and raised her hands. ‘I’m not going to hurt you. I know what I look like, but I’m not actually a slasher; I’m a slasher hunter.’
Looking at the ordinary, scared woman who had nevertheless risked her life to save hers, Sam was filled with a warm desire to protect her in turn.
Puck had said something once. Women don’t fight for nations or friends or even themselves, but they’ll fight for family.
As of this moment, Sam considered all of the human race as her family, and all slashers as predators. She would use the Zone, their venom, against them. She’d exterminate them all.
Sam hoisted Coco over her shoulder. ‘You’re going to be alright. Junior back there is getting in touch with nature. You can thank me by naming your first-born daughter Samantha at her baptism.’
Coco half laughed-half cried. ‘I’m actually an atheist.’
Sam slapped her behind. ‘Well, you’d better get to converting then, huh? You may not believe in God, but God believes in you.’
She started jogging through the forest. Being in the Zone was like having infrared vision; she could see everything in rainbow detail. A hundred meters ahead of her, two pairs of slashers were fighting.
She recognised them from The Slasher Times.
There was Halo, a maniac who dressed like an angel and stabbed people with miniature crucifixes to bring them closer to the Mormon God.
There was Jeanson Vorjeans, a freak so obsessed with denim jeans he replaced his skin with the material and now cut people in half with a chainsaw sword to free their ‘sentient lower halves’ from their ‘parasitic upper halves’.
There was Little Red Riding Hood, a mysterious newcomer to the scene who had been rising rapidly through the Hot List thanks to her flechette shotgun, whose legitimacy as a slashing weapon was hotly contested in the The Slasher Times comment section.
And there was Big Bad Wolf, Little Red Riding Hood’s maneating partner who was after Jack for killing his best friend Golden Bear.
Sam threw a windy hatchet at Halo and Jeanson Vorjeans and sliced their heads off. Little Red Riding Hood and Big Bad Wolf froze in place. The predators could sense they were in the presence of an alpha predator. Sam strolled over.
Coco whispered. ‘What are you doing?’
‘Relax,’ said Sam. ‘These guys are B-list. They haven’t entered the Zone.’ She waved at Little Red Riding Hood and Big Bad Wolf. ‘You win. Now are you going to answer some questions for me, or am I going to have to get medieval on your asses?’
Little Red Riding Hood and Big Bad Wolf put their hands up.
Big Bad Wolf growled. ‘We don’t want any trouble from a Zone user.’
Little Red Riding Hood shook her head.
‘Good,’ said Sam. ‘Why are there so many B-list and C-list slashers running around in Patriot territory? Are you idiots? Those guys are A-list and B-list.’
‘Well,’ said Big Bad Wolf. ‘A dozen of the smaller news networks saw that Jackal News, America News Network, and Great News were banding together so that they could train their slashers, so they all figured now would be a perfect opportunity to launch a surprise attack. No one would expect it, y’know? He who dares wins.’
‘Oh, I see, you are idiots. I’m guessing since you’re here, you know the way out of his forest, correct?’
Little Red Riding Hood nodded.
‘Good. Here’s what’s going to happen: you're going to lead us out of the forest, and I’m going to find somewhere safe for Coco here; then I'm going to come back, and you’re going to lead me to my friends. Capeesh?’
Little Red Riding Hood and Big Bad Wolf nodded.
‘Great. But first, I need a makeover.’ She put Coco down. ‘Bear with me for a second, honey.’
War drums began to play in Sam’s head. She dipped her index fingers in Halo’s blood and painted two horizontal lines under her eyes, picked up Jeanson Vorjean’s chainsaw sword, and revved it with a pull of the trigger. ‘Groovy!’