They were able to locate an old map of Florgia, long-forgotten behind a convenience store shelf in Pensacola. It proved to be useful in getting them past Tallahassee and Gainesville. Their anticipation and fear rose as they passed by Ocala on 75. It had been completely decimated from incendiaries. Fear prickled as they wondered if Hana’s godfather would still be in the St. Petersburg area. When they found a closer map of the Tampa and Clearwater areas, their hearts sank. Fort Dade was an island off the tip of the St. Petersburg peninsula, and it was tiny. Surely the science centre couldn’t be there. Where else, though, could Corbin have centred his complex if it was still there?
They hoped and walked. Their aim was a large green belt out near an area called Cat’s Point. They very well may walk for months back and forth through St. Petersburg and the islands to try and find the building. The closer they got, the less faith they had that they would be able to find Corbin Ziphle.
“Oye, guys!” Heinrich called out to the other wolves on the Highway 19 strip. They were dodging in and out of dark shadows. There were still working lights on the streets. Someone had the grid still up and running. It had been rare when they encountered mass electricity in their travels. They had dodged housing when one or two buildings showed the use of solar generators. Self-sufficient farmers tended to own guns and had very little problem shooting at wolves that even thought of harming their livestock. The streetlights in St. Petersburg were eerie, if only for the fact that most of the buildings along the road were boarded up. Some had been ransacked. Others had been left intact. They passed by a couple of malls and a vacated National Guard building without much luck. The buildings were large enough to house Corbin, but no luck.
Heinrich, eager to make the corner that would put them on Pinellas scouted ahead. A boarded gas station called their names. Maybe they’d be able to find a better map of St. Petersburg than the one they had, which had been a broad regional map. They were hoping for one that had the street names listed if at all possible.
With a bit of struggle, they forced their way inside the dim building. Dust motes hung in the shafts of light streaming through the plywood. It had been ransacked and tagged at one point. One of the windows had been broken out and boarded over. Canned food and trinkets littered the aisles. Some of the cans had burst, leaving the space smelling acrid. The group split up to inspect the shelves, seeing if there was anything they could stuff into their bags and if they could find the elusive map.
The wolves allowed the humans to take their shift momentarily. Fingers could reach behind shelves much easier than paws. The women set to work on gathering up nonperishables within the expiration date. They broke into the back office and storage room while the men shifted shelves to locate a possibly misplaced map.
A loud howl of joy came from the back office. The men perked up, curious as to what had set the women off. Sun Hee bounded out of the office with a massive white sheet of paper, and Zola had a medium-sized box gripped tightly against her chest. Hana followed the two with a big grin on her face. The men rushed over to see what the chaos was about.
“Found a delivery and distribution map for St. Petersburg pinned up behind the boss’s desk!” Sun Hee spread the sheet out on the checkout counter between them and the guys.
“They had a bigger one on the other wall, but it’s the same as the one we have now, other than a pinpoint for all of the stations in the greater Florgia area,” Hana supplied.
“What did you find, Zola?” Benj asked curiously. Zola set the cardboard box down on the counter while Hana and Nat navigated the map, trying to make a decent guess at where a massive building could fit in the neighbourhoods, swamps, and sandbars. Yeller and Dietrich split their attention between the two. Zola opened up the box with a flourish. Inside were snack bags of chocolate pieces, all still held tight in a vacuum-sealed bag. The group’s eyes went round. They hadn’t had chocolate since Oregonia.
Yeller was the one who knew he was going to get a can of food flung at his head for what he had to say. “You know chocolate can kill dogs, right? And caffeine isn’t good for the kids.”
“Uhhhh. Why! No! Gah,” Sun Hee protested over the box. Her face turned red as her eyes swam in tears. Nat, Yeller and Benj backed up a step and shoved Deck over the counter. “Up you go.” “She’s your’s.” “Sorry, mate.” The three abandoned Deck to his fate. Sun Hee sputtered and rambled and cried and yelled. There was a long line of confusion that issued from her in no real coherence other than cursing at the world and how everything was unfair and sucked.
A loud thud on the roof startled most of the group outside of Sun Hee, and her tirade, though Deck eased her voice to a low mumble. The rest watched the ceiling, tracking footsteps approaching the end of the building they had entered from. Hairs rose on Nat’s arms.
I smell bird, Sven growled inside of him. Nat nodded, catching the stench drifting through the vents in the ceiling. Cashia shifted and pushed up against Nat, backing him away from their entrance. Nat knelt and put his arm around Cashia’s neck, drawing his ear toward him. “Get Dietrich and Heinrich ready for an ambush. Keep the women safe. I’m going to go as bait. Hana and I are the ones he’s psycho over. He may have others.” He eased a large pocket knife out of his pack and flipped the blade experimentally. He shut it closed and palmed it.
Cashia glanced at him before letting Yeller take over. “Absolutely fucking not, you gammy eejit. You go out there, you die,” Yeller hissed back as Benj knelt next to them.
Nat raised enough to kiss Yeller on the forehead. “I wouldn’t risk you or our children for the world, and I’ll never be able to stand knowing you were at risk because of me. You keep them safe.” Nat ran a hand along Yeller’s reassuringly as his eyes switched to their two-toned look. He pressed his will and love into Yeller.
Deck had gotten the women to duck and cover under the counter and had come around to the guys’ side. “Surely you’re not doing stupid things again!”
Dietrich sat back and watched, curious. It wasn’t exactly a half-bad idea. Nat would be bait, bringing Michael down. Cashia would hold back and protect the women, though Tereza was inside of Nat, and that was a risk on its own. Dietrich and Heinrich would be ready to ambush Michael when he came to get Nat.
“We finish this now. I’ve crossed an entire continent with this bastard hanging onto our trail. I’m tired of it, and I want it to be done with,” spat Nat. “I have a very personal vendetta with him, and I’m gonna make sure he takes it.”
Deck nodded. He wasn’t happy with it, but he understood it all too well. Dietrich shifted and butted his head against Nat’s arm in acceptance. “You’d make a good second in command,” he said softly.
Yeller looked between the two in confused horror. This wasn’t going how he had wanted. Nat leaned forward and pulled Yeller down to meet his lips. Tears and apprehension brush behind the blond’s eyes. Cashia supported him, knowing this was terrifying for him to experience all over again. “Save a bag of chocolate for me.” Nat smiled up at Yeller. As he rose to get up from his crouch, he leaned over and whispered in Yeller’s ear, “I love you.” He turned, slinking toward their entrance hole on silent, bare feet.
Deck and Benj pushed the stunned Yeller around the counter to block off the women. They followed Nat a close distance behind and shifted. The women and Yeller followed suit in shifting. Sylvi rubbed up against Cashia’s side. Cashia turned to her. “Are you all right with this? Your husband is about to go murder himself, again,” he seethed.
Sylvi sat down and wrapped her tail up around her feet. “And your wife,” she agreed with him.
He glanced back at Sibor and Anastasia. They were standing on guard, ready as the third wave. “It would have been better to leave Sven and Tereza here and let me go,” he muttered angrily.
Sylvi shifted her shoulders. “You’ve known Sven and Tereza for centuries. They can be quite stubborn. And they deeply love their mates. I’ve seen Sven go up against bears and other wolf packs before to keep Dietrich and me alive. I’ve seen Tereza stand over you more than once when you took too a hard hit. Nat has merged with them completely, and I do believe they don’t want to see us hurt again. They seem to have found a well-matched host,” she admitted.
Yeller sat back inside of Cashia as his world dimmed to a dark throbbing pain. He didn’t want to be on this side of the counter. He didn’t want Nat sticking his head out of their entry point. He didn’t want to be watching as the world slowed to a pinpoint of light.
Breathe, Ruben. Cashia reprimanded him. Though Cashia said it, Yeller’s heart and lungs tried to crawl out of his throat as adrenaline burst through his system in sparks of numbing pain. The pinpoint of light flashed in his chest as he watched Nat’s feet leave the tile in slow motion, his love’s body dragged up and out of the hole. Chained in deep mud, Yeller tried to rush forward after Dietrich and Heinrich, who charged out of the hole, splintering the boards. Cashia was pushed forward by the women who weren’t going to stand back for long with their men leaving. The distance across the floor increased endlessly, and he was not getting to the exit fast enough.
Nat wasn’t too surprised when he was picked up by Michael. He had expected he would have gotten farther out of the exit before the birdman picked him up, but it still achieved the desired effect. Two other bird men followed close behind, surprised by a pair of wolves launching themselves onto their backs and rending their wings. They plummeted to the earth as Michael pulled himself higher into the sky with his heavy load and turned south out toward the ocean.
Michael’s arms wrapped around Nat’s throat and under his right arm. “Why are you still alive? I watched from the house across the street, you slutty bastard. You couldn’t just have my sister could you, you filthy piece of shit? You left her alone with those wolves while you went and fucked your little boy toy. You couldn’t get enough of my men, so you went and had to spread yourself for someone else?” The man’s arms tightened around Nat, crushing his windpipe. His feet dangled uselessly over fast-moving land. The wind tore at his flesh. “It took months to find your trail again. You thought you were clever, leaving in the dark. Now I’ll finally be rid of you. Then I’m gonna go and gut those mangy mutts of yours, every single one of them. Think I’ll make that gold one into a nice pelt.”
Nat desperately scratched with one hand, terrified, as he tried to flip the blade open in his other hand. Sven and Tereza circled. Nat refused their shift. The sharp edge sprang free of the case. He flipped the blade in his hand and struck backwards, driving the blade deep into Michael’s ribs. The man hissed at the attack, loosening his grip momentarily. “I’ve been wanting to do that for ages,” Nat hissed as he reached for Tereza and Sven. They took his offered hands and swamped his system with energy.
Michael banked hard as nauseating, fear-inducing pheromones dripped from every pore on Nat’s body. Water came into view past the neighbourhoods and greenway. Sticky hot liquid ran along his back and dripped down his stomach as he struggled with Michael’s inescapable grip. Desperately an idea floated into his buzzing mind. Sven and Tereza were mortified but willing.
The blue-green of algae and the smell of fish and seafoam hit Nat with a buffeting hot wind over the coastline. Water was maybe more survivable than land if he dropped from this height. Nat pulled his right arm up and chanced the leader of the birdmen dropping him. He grabbed for the back of Michael’s neck. With all the force in his body and Sven and Tereza’s connection, he pushed into Michael as he buried the blade once more in his ribs until he felt the blade crunch through something other than muscle. The wheeze he heard told him he’d probably got a lung or some other organ, but had missed the heart. Michael’s wings closed up like a parachute with a hole in it. He could feel himself go weightless as Michael let go of him, and they both plummeted. The rocks in the water came up faster than he expected. Sven and Tereza wrapped around his consciousness as they ducked and covered.
Dietrich and Heinrich stripped the feathers from the two men that had come with Michael, clawing their backs to shreds. They recognised them immediately for their smell. They would never be able to forget them or forgive them. The men were some of Nat’s attackers.
Cashia emerged from the exit followed closely by the women in time to see Dietrich and Heinrich tear open the men’s throats. He looked up to find Michael flying off with Nat struggling beneath him. Yeller wasn’t going to take no for an answer this time. “Take care of the women!” He demanded of his leader and his leader’s son. He launched himself out onto the highway and ran because the world was ending.
He didn’t take his eyes off of the struggling men in the sky as he passed by a mile, two miles. Houses flew, turning into deep green trees. A massive white metal complex hidden by the trees flicked in his periphery. A whiff of sickly-sweet honey and brood permeated the area near the building. Multiple rhythmic gunshots rang out from that direction, but it was not as important at that moment as getting to Nat.
He came upon a bridge, and the smell of the ocean hit him full in the face. He swallowed, terrified, as he watched Nat push a blade deep into Micheal’s chest and the birdman’s wings twinged to circle him northwest over a small bay. Nat reached around and grabbed Michael’s neck as he buried the blade again, and the wings snapped at the bones. They folded up as feathers tore from flesh to rain down in a cloud. Michael let go of Nat as he struggled with his wings. Nat wasn’t positioned well, though, as Cashia watched. He was coming in over a rock and sand bar, whereas Michael had made it into a clear blue section of the water that looked deep and smooth. Cashia jumped the road and made for the bay as Nat hit down, his body going limp at impact. Michael struggled in the water, his useless wings weighing him down.
The birdman pulled himself up along the beach as Cashia reached the edge of the water. Yeller swung wide in the shift and smashed a fist into the man’s face. Searing pain radiated up his knuckles and the crunch of bones under his fist told him the bad news.
Michael fell back in surprise, his bleeding wounds gaping. He struggled to draw in a breath around his collapsed lung. Cashia took the shift as Yeller tagged him in and came down on Michael, finishing off his suffocation, puncturing holes in his throat. He held the birdman pinned until he no longer heard him breathing.
Yeller pulled Cashia from seeing red to check Nat’s lifeless body laid out on the rock and sand near the mouth of the bay. They ran down the edge of the beach and out onto a dock. Yeller dove into the water and propelled himself across the water with every ounce of strength he had left.
“No!” he screamed as his hands found the shore. He pulled up to the sandbar, slogged his way across the sinking mud, and slipped across the algae-covered rock to Nat. “No! Don’t! Don’t you die on me now, medeni!” Cashia screamed at the top of his lungs. He skidded to Nat’s side.
“Please don’t be dead, please don’t be dead, ná bíodh. Don’t do this, mo grá,” Yeller mumbled as tears tracked down his cheeks. He gathered Nat’s body into his arms. His skin was clammy cold. Michael’s blood smeared across his back and his stomach. The impact of the rock had torn at his skin, leaving varying grit-filled bleeding gashes from head to toe. Yeller cradled Nat against his chest. He searched for an errant heartbeat, a stutter of the lungs, any sign that would tell him the man walked in the land of the living. He found silence.
Cashia bore the brunt of Yeller’s heartbreak as his mind went numb. Nat lay like a bloodied doll in his arms. His mind wrapped around Yeller’s poignant pain as his hollow agony surfaced. His chest constricted and refused to allow a full gasp of air. His gut was full of lead and acid. Tears ran in hot streams down his cheeks.
Tereza was gone. Sven was gone. Nat was gone. He howled in misery, mixing his voice with Yeller’s.
Deck and Benj helped Yeller pull Nat’s body back to the mainland. The group collapsed onto the beach in misery and pain. The remainder of Michael’s group had gone down fighting, and there were minor wounds evenly distributed between them all. Yeller refused to let Nat’s body leave his arms. Sun Hee was the next to understand the full impact of what it meant, and her tears poured down in torrents. Zola and Hana followed suit next. Benj and Deck held them gently, fighting with their own emotions.
A warm sea salt gust brushed at Yeller’s hair. He looked up to the horizon. A shift in weight startled him. He watched the texture of Nat’s cold skin change to a thick coat of white fur. Sven’s form lay limp in his arms. A single shallow rise of the chest cavity sent Yeller’s heart into overdrive. Hana brushed a shaking hand along the wolf’s cold head, her cheeks tracked with tears.
Yeller swivelled to the sound of gunshots on the other side of the forest along the bay. He dragged himself up, carefully cradling the wolf’s body. His mind numb and Cashia struggling, he let his feet fall heavily through the woods. He passed a mansion to the other side of the street and deep into heavy greenery where he had smelled the unmistakable scent of Bai.
Nat and Yeller in the beginning.
*Next book is Subgalaxia: Legend of the Bai – Book 4*
Chapel Orahamm (C) 2022-2023. All Rights Reserved.
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