The sun glared down, unfriendly and burning. An unusual day. Chill air, however, crept across the land like an infestation of spiders. Rust coloured leaves whisked across the ground, frost nodules glimmering on the rims. The skeletal trees snipped and snapped against each other. The thick of the forest waned into pasture land as they pressed their advance through the wilds. The pastures were as dry and forlorn as the woods were. The first house they stumbled upon sat as shattered ruins. A plethora of green weeds twined through its splintered rafters.
The first real growth they had seen for miles. White flowers dotted across the plants. “Disturbing, but pretty,” Zola crooned as she went to touch one of the flowers.
Benj pulled her away quickly. “Spiderwort. Guys, we need to get out of this area fast!”
Yeller stared at him in confusion. Nat slumped against the blond, weary and dazed. Benj pushed his hair back in frustration. “This isn’t the time to be standing around here talking science.”
“What is it?” Zola asked him, concerned at his outburst.
“Indicator of radiation.” He pulled his shift, letting his wolf run.
A shocked silence fell on the group as they comprehended his meaning. “Shit!” Deck allowed the wolf forward to shift. Hana took to the sky, sending feathers across the grey heavens. The group raced down the dirt road until their lungs gave out.
A bombed-out town greeted them with a rakish grin at the end of the field of spiderwort. Skeleton towers reached bony fingers into the skyline as blackened, ashen houses were the marker gravestones of many families.
The hackles rose on the wolves’ backs. Blood dripped down the white wolf’s limping legs, but the creature refused to let Nat have his body back until they reached the city. They were walking down a road by the name of Houston when a rustling bang issued out from an alley behind a set of houses.
A group of youths in grungy jeans and ripped t-shirts strutted out from behind garbage cans and rubble. Hair, greased and matted, streamed down their backs like so many slithering snakes. Gleaming sneers plastered their ashen faces. Their eyes were dilated and bloodshot, their stare zombie-like.
“Hey, boys, what we got here?” One of the lankier children chuckled to his buddies as he swung a long, thin plank and hit the side of a trash can with a loud bang. They hissed and chuckled to themselves. “We got mutts. Are we up for some food?” The boy that spoke first egged on his comrades. He had a shock of greasy black hair that hung in his morbid grey eyes. He pushed at it once and glanced back at his friends. Sun Hee’s wolf quivered behind Deck’s. Zola whined.
“Why aren’t these walking meatcicles running?” A blond teen sneered, disappointed with the game. Benj’s tail tucked under his legs and his lips raised to show bared teeth.
Deck glanced at Nat, his mind whirling, trying to remember how he had linked with him the first time. Nat’s wolf limped, the holes in his shoulders oozing. Deck’s mind slipped from its chaotic state and inched on a tracer path past his wolf. Nat, should we show ourselves, fight, go?
Nat glanced sharply back at the wolf. Let’s scram. There’s no use in us showing ourselves. These guys are on something. They arent seeing the world around them. You can see it in their skin tone, the way they’re standing. Nat shook himself, taunting the teens.
“Let’s eat!” The ringleader waved the group forward. Skeletal children crawled from every nook and cranny of the buildings like so many cockroaches.
Hana watched from the rooftops, having flown above the group since sighting the first bombed outhouse. She ran along the rusty metal beams of a ransacked, crumbling office building before taking to the air once more.
The wolves dodged in and out of the buildings, deeper and deeper into downtown. They rushed into one of the office buildings. Hana circled the tower. Finding a broken window, she dove in.
The remaining glass in the casement lay shattered on the floor, gleaming in the setting sun. She moaned to herself, having twisted her left-wing out of joint. Lifting herself from the floor, she stretched the wing out to its full length, an audible crack echoed in the building. “That felt good.” She ducked at a loud crash and yelling voices. “Can I not leave you guys alone for one minute?” She ran through the labyrinth of cubicles.
The door, with its flickering red exit light, taunted her from the far reaches of the massive room. She wanted to fly, but the cubicle walls laughed at her. She dove for the exit as a loud bang issued up the stairs again. Flights of stairs whirled by her as she plummeted to the bottom of the building. She heard a bark near the third floor buried under a barrage of teenagers screaming.
Can’t do this anymore, čovjek. You’re taking over before I pass out. Stairs are evil.
I’ll do what I can. If I pass out, I’m fifteen pounds lighter than you anyway.
Eat something, damn you!
Feed me something other than hibernating skunks! Nat came up short at the top of the third-floor stairs as the kid with black hair came tumbling up the steps.
“The hell! Where’d the dogs go!” the boy cried out in frustration. He glared at Nat, not noticing the other wolves creeping up the stairs on the other side. “What’d you do with them?” The tall teen uppercut Nat in the stomach, sending him reeling against the railing.
A sweet taste filled Nat’s mouth. His stomach burned as the sweet taste vanished into the coppery flavour of blood. The boy caught him in the eye before he was able to dodge. Out of a swollen eye, Nat barely missed seeing Hana flash by.
“Hana,” Nat mumbled around a split lip. Deck came lumbering down the stairs and caught the kid in the jaw. The boy tumbled back into his companions.
“You really don’t know how to keep yourself out of trouble, do you, Nat?” Deck hauled Nat to his feet and pushed him up the steps. He opened a door at the top of the fourth flight and pushed Nat through. The white-haired man caught himself on a desk, waiting to catch his breath.
Zola came up to him, turning him around to see the damage. “Ouch.” She touched a swelling eye.
Yeller searched the room in a state of confusion. “Hana’s missing.” A banging at the locked door forced them to crouch.
Sven threw Nat into the recesses, and whirled to stare in horror at the tall man. The creature felt like he had gotten punched in the stomach a second time. “She was going down the stairwell when I last saw her.” He ran back for the door.
Benj tumbled after Nat, pinning his arms before he could unlock the door. “You can’t go back out there, Nat; those kids’ll kill you,” he yelled at the struggling man. “Deck! Yeller! Help!” Yeller rushed forward to help hold Nat, but Deck was lying on the floor, moaning. “What’s goin’ on here!” Benj yelped as the creature caught him in the head with his elbow. The beast wasn’t going to be able to get away from Yeller so easily, though. Benj ducked from Nat’s thrashing limbs and rushed over to Deck and Sun Hee. “What happened?”
“He mumbled something about the power symbol on his gut and how it felt like someone was hammering on it.” She held Deck’s head in her lap. Pain washed across Deck’s pale face, and a fine sheen of sweat coated his skin.
Benj scrambled up and ducked under Nat’s thrashing limbs to unlock the door. “Let him go,” he commanded.
“Ye’r bein’ a gammy eejit.” Yeller got his arms crossed over Nat’s, stalling the man’s protest finally.
“And I’m gonna keep being an idiot right now. Let him go.” Benj nodded, and Yeller dropped his squirming bundle. The prior Muay Thai fighter grabbed Nat by the shoulders and shook him, gaining the creature’s attention. “Hey. Wolf. Sven. You paying attention in there? You remember the power symbols, right?” Benj asked. Nat pushed the information at the wolf in desperation, begging for him to give him his body back. “You know how to cause them, right?”
“Hana may need it.” Benj pushed him out the door.
Sven collided with two young women leaning against the rails. They fell back against the stair railing and tumbled down the flight. He ignored them, looking through the stairwell in search of Hana. She stood in the middle of the concrete slab that led into the lobby. Her black wings stretched around her in a protective cocoon. Teens squabbled around her, pelting her, pushing her, pulling away handfuls of feathers.
She needs power now, Nat. Send it to her! Sun Hee explained it to you. Find the light and push. Deck yelled through Nat’s mind. Sven bent under the scream.
Right. Nat replied after finding his link. He focused on Hana, waiting for his mind to clear.
You’ve got her, brat1. I have to keep us from dying. Sven took over control of his body while Nat fell back into the recesses of his mind to find the path of power. A point of light appeared hazily. It took a few seconds before the light became steady enough to direct. The wolf wrapped around him, the shadow behind him adding to the twist as they led him. Decades slipped by to direct that warped, three-coloured point. Sven gave her the warmth of protection, of life.
Hana cowered, overwhelmed by teenagers beating on her. It terrified her, the anger that swamped the children. Red, seething heat poured off of the children. She calmed herself and let the turmoil flick away from her as she went back into her mind. She found energy, potential power nestled within her. It was dangerous what she was about to do. If she unleashed too much, she would die.
I need help. She moaned to herself as she drew her hands up to her chest, laying the palms against one another. She waited for the energy to coil until it warped in her winged space. Another power, a different colour from hers, trickled into her cocoon.
She retracted a small fraction of hers, the energy needed to sustain her life while taking some of the new power in with her. She tasted the flavour of it, sensed it, knowing that it was one of the men that she had been around. Orange, white, black, and burning. It threw feathers of power out into her wings, stabilising them.
Hana waited until she could hold the energy no longer. Unfurling her wings in the cramped space, a sonic boom knocked the kids down throughout the whole lobby. The surge caught in her wings, sending her hurdling up the flight of stairs and out through the skylight at the top of the building.
Nat watched with a sinking heart as Hana flew past him once again. A crash echoed through the concrete stairwell. Glass shards rained down on the treads and floor. He rushed back into the room where his friends hid. Benj was trying to console Sun Hee.
“Guys, we can get out, but we gotta get out now!” He stumbled with vertigo, pushed past the nausea building under his feet. Nat grabbed Deck with Yeller’s help, guiding him out of the room and down the stairs. The others raced after him, distributing the load of the two injured men. They dodged unconscious bodies on the tiled lobby floor and flung themselves through a broken revolving door.
Sven found Hana limp against the building facade. She was breathing, to the creature’s relief, but she was out cold. “Foolish girl,” Sven whispered in her ear, kissing her temple. He picked her up, tucking her wings behind her back. Fire screamed in his shoulders.
Yeller eased up next to him, carefully lifting Hana out of his arms. “Wolf, you maime him, I will pull you out of him the hard way. Walk with me, and don’t take my throat out, and I’ll give her back when you can sit down and not make Nat puke, got it.”
“Is that you, Cashia, or your host?” Sven hissed under his breath.
“And you’re Sven then. Get moving.” Yeller turned to Benj, “Come on. We have to get away from these kids before they get up and come after us again.”
Deck nodded and let the wolf out. Zola, Benj, and Sun Hee took up positions around Yeller, Nat, and Hana.
Chapel Orahamm (C) 2022-2023. All Rights Reserved.
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