2: Witness

Olivia stared at the dumpster behind the fast food joint and sniffed. The burger patties were still in there, just as they had been five minutes ago when she’d first approached it. The overpowering stench of rot and garbage surrounded them. Just grab the food. Get it over with before someone comes, she thought. She forced herself to grab the black plastic dumpster lid and lifted it. Her eyes watered. The boxes on top don’t smell as bad. She hooked a cardboard box with a couple claws and fished it out.

A light breeze cooled an already chilly spring evening as she hurried back to the apartment with her food. It caught on her partially folded wings, knocking her off balance for a moment. This might be quicker if I could fly. She slipped through the broken door on the ground floor and headed up the stairs to her home, nearly tripping and spilling her meal.

She plopped the box down on the floor in front of her as she sat cross legged in the middle of the living room to give room for her tail and wings. The smell from the dumpster hadn’t dissipated from it. She bit down on the damp, cold burger patty. Her throat closed off and her stomach convulsed. Forcing it down, she she grabbed a water bottle and washed away the stale aftertaste. At least I’m not throwing up. She forced down most of the box’s contents with two water bottles to keep the aftertaste from growing too bad. Her stomach still grumbled, though the pain had subsided.

I can’t get much lower than this, can I? What am I even doing? She left to walk around in the building and clear her head. Her wings, folded tight, arched over her head and constantly smacked into door frames. Maybe I can figure out how to fly. I don’t have anything better to do.

She climbed to the roof of her building on the sixth floor and observed the Sunday night traffic. Few people were out, and as she enjoyed the open space and fresh air, they dispersed. With the coast clear, she tried to psyche herself up to jump off a building. Just spread my wings and jump. That’s what birds do, right? My wings look really wide in the mirror. Wide enough, right? Does that matter?

The hard ground stretched on beneath her, with only six stories worth of insubstantial air beneath her and it. Why not jump? I have wings. Wings are for flying. But why fly? Walking is perfectly fine. I don’t need to jump off a building. Why not? All I have to do is glide, nothing fancy. But what if I mess up? I’ll probably break a bunch of bones, or die. She spent a full half hour second guessing herself. No one will notice if I fly or splatter on the ground, either way. At least flying might be fun. And so, with the coast all clear, she spread her wings out as far as they could go, closed her eyes, and leapt.

The air rushed past her face, whipping her hair around. Her wings pulled at her back. They didn’t shake, instead keeping strong and steady. She cracked an eye open. The ground passed below her, not growing any larger. She opened her eyes fully and looked around. Her wings kept her aloft and gliding. I’m actually flying! She smiled. I can fly! I can actually fly! She tore her gaze from her wing and looked to the ground again. A web of cracks lined the empty sidewalks and streets below. It looks so weird from up here. She gave a quiet whoop of glee into the quiet night air.

After gliding for about half a block, enjoying the almost weightless sensation of flying, she looked ahead. A much taller building loomed as she hurdled straight towards it. Bad, bad, bad. Turn. She tried leaning sharply to the right, accidentally folding her right wing in the process. She twisted and flailed as she plummeted, trying to catch the air with her wings again. At the sight of the rapidly approaching earth, she closed her eyes and brought her arms up around her head. Her shoulder slammed into the ground, and she rolled to a stop a couple paces away.

She took in a laboured breath, her chest screaming in pain as her lungs inflated. I’m alive? She climbed to her feet, her knees weak. Her clawed hands shook from residual fear and adrenaline. Other than the massive pain in her shoulder, ribs, and wing, she felt intact. I’m alive! She looked around. No one saw that?

The concrete behind her had suffered worse than she had, cracking at the impact site. The sheer distance she’d dropped seemed like it should have broken something important. You know what? I’ll take it. It’s about time something good happened.

Olivia took a couple of tentative steps. Nothing besides her right flank hurt. She took that as a medical green light and headed back home. I’m alive. I’m actually alive and not dreaming. That hurt but I didn’t wake up. And I can fly! I just need to figure out how to turn and stuff. She got out of the center of the street and reached the relative safety of the dark alleys and backstreets. I just need practice. Her shoulder let out a lance of pain as she made the mistake of rearranging her wings. Later. Practice later. I need to find more food anyways.

***

The next night found Olivia standing on the edge of the roof again. Instead of apprehension clouding her face, her eyes were wide and eager. The pain in her shoulder had vanished as she slept during the day. She watched the streets below her for any sign of life.

“This won’t be that bad,” she murmured to herself. “It worked last time. Kind of.”

Ignoring her still grumbling stomach, she spread her wings and jumped forward off the roof. Just as last time, her wings kept her steady as she glided at a jogging pace. OK. Turn. She leaned ever so slightly to the left, and her flight path shifted accordingly. She leaned to the right, a little sharper than before. Her path turned. A wide grin split her face. I’m not crashing!

A couple minutes, and many tentative turns later, she found herself getting closer and closer to rooftops. OK. I’ve been drifting down. Up, up, how do I go up? She twisted her head around to look at her wings. Please? She returned her attention to in front of her. I need to, I don’t know, do wing things. Almost reflexively, she twisted her wings at their base, angling them upwards, and rose into the air. Her smile faltered as she slowed to a stop in mid-air. Wait, no, falling bad. She pushed herself forward and caught the air with her wings again. Crash avoided!

Olivia glided aimlessly for some time. A car below her had caused her to freeze up for a moment, but it moved on without pause. Then, with the ground finally approaching, a thought occurred to her. How do I land? The ground grew closer. With my feet? She arched her back and pulled up, as sharp as her wings and spine would let her. She shot up a few feet, then once again came to a stop in midair. Her arms flailed as she fell, feet first. The impact with the road made her knees buckle, and she collapsed on the ground. She took a deep breath after a moment, her clawed feet aching fiercely. OK. I think I’ve stopped now. She got up and brushed the dirt and gravel from her arms and legs. The bridges between her back claw and the front of her feet burned in pain.

“That worked,” she murmured. Sort of.

A smile still persisted on her face. She flexed her knee as she took a couple shaky steps away. I want to do that again! And where am I? It smells like people nearby. Maybe I can see what they’re doing. They’re there for a reason, right?

On foot, she followed the smell of people to the back of a shop. She poked her head around the corner of a nearby building to see a man passing out bags of breads to several homeless people. Oh, so that’s what non-dumpster bread smells like. Kind of like that donut shop, but not as good. But it’s still food though. She kept watch, hoping that maybe she could ask the man giving out the bread for some once everyone else had left. Or is that a bad idea? I kind of scare me, what about them? She pulled back when one of the homeless approached where she hid.

In the distance, someone screamed. The homeless man whirled around towards the sound, eyes wild. He hurried away, directly for Olivia. She froze. Scream, what was that scream? Around the corner, she heard several sets of footsteps heading away from where the scream had come from. A door slammed shut. Wait, no. A moment later, she found herself face to face with a shocked man, mouth agape beneath a scraggly greying beard.

I should say something. Before she got a chance to open her mouth, the man dropped his bag and ran with a desperate cry. She stared after him as he scrambled around a corner. Oh. OK. Her wings drooped, their tips brushing against the ground. I’m not going to… OK. Her downcast eyes spotted the bag of bread he’d left behind. He forgot it? Really? It’s food. Should I give it back? I don’t think he wants to see me again.

She grabbed the bag and walked back to her apartment, her feet scratching against the concrete sidewalks. Screaming bad, avoid screaming. But could I… no. I guess I couldn’t really help. She didn’t hear any other people nearby as she returned to her apartment. Once inside, she set the bread bag down on the counter, sliced it open, and took out a random loaf.

The tag on the wrapper read ‘wheat bread.’ OK, let’s see how this is. She took a big bite out of the loaf. Her chewing slowed to a stop not long after. Is this dirt? Is this what dirt tastes like? She considered the brown loaf, now with a large chunk of it missing. It’s not bad. It’s food, I guess. She forced the rest of it down. I think I liked the old burgers more. The bagel she tried next didn’t taste much better. She eyed a twisted piece of bread with a brown powder sprinkled on top. That smells good. One last try. Once she cut away the thin plastic around it with a claw, she took a bite.

Ohmygosh! This is so good! She stared at the bread thing for a moment, then shoved the rest in her mouth. What is this? I need to know. A quick glance at the sticker on the wrapper told her it was a cinnamon crusted pastry. Cinnamon. I like cinnamon.

A yawn caught her by surprise. Is it time already? I must have flown a long way. And walked. And the bread thing. Right. She sighed and curled up on the couch, her tail hanging off the edge. All around her, cars moved, their engines filling the air with noise. The sun peeked over the horizon, its early morning rays shooting into Olivia’s room. She grimaced and pulled her old, worn blanket over her head.

“Just let me sleep,” she murmured to herself.

***

The next night, Olivia found herself in front of a dumpster yet again. Rather than a dumpster behind a fast food joint, however, this one was next to an inhabited apartment building, the scents of all sorts of people surrounding her. She lifted the lid. Hey, there’s other stuff in here. With a claw, she hooked a ragged backpack out of the dumpster.

Why is it all sticky? It smells like grape juice. Grape juice. How did I know that? What is a grape? It’s a little round green fruit thing. I know that. I know what cars and apartments are too. How do I know that?

She paused, screwing her eyes shut. Think. People. Men and women. Different colors of hair. No. Think faces. A face. Different shapes of noses? No. A face. A specific face. A small, frustrated hiss escaped her, breaking her concentration. Nothing. A few strands of wavy brown hair dangled in her face. Her head was bowed, and her hands clenched the edge of the dumpster. She unclenched her teeth and stood upright, releasing the dumpster. She didn’t notice the holes her claws had punched in the metal. I still can’t remember anyone at all.

She sighed and considered the dirty backpack, still in her hands. Maybe I can wash this off somewhere. She slung it over her shoulder and tucked it under a wing.

Now what? Maybe I can focus on good smells. She took a few steps away from the dumpster and sniffed the air, taking in all the smells around her. Beyond the trash, the people, the cars, and all the things she had no names for, she picked up scents that didn’t nauseate her. Oh, maybe that way. She walked further into the neighborhood, as always sticking to the shadows and back alleys. She’d tried taking off just by jumping before, but that had led to a faceplant. I’ll figure it out. Birds can do it.

An hour later, she returned to her apartment with a box of Twinkies and a bag of beef jerky she’d taken from someone’s backyard next to a grill. I want a grill. That smelled good. And those people probably had lots of food if they’re just leaving it out like that.

She noticed a stamp on the side of the box of Twinkies. ‘Expires 9/21/2416’. What? The paper said it was 2013 now. She put the box on the counter in the kitchen, next to the old, stale bread. I’ll try the other thing first. She fished another piece of jerky out of the large red plastic bag. This is really good. It’s not all cold and damp like the burgers. She stretched her wings out and arched her back as she ate.

Hunching over all the time like this is a pain. Maybe a table? Yeah, I could put stuff on it. Maybe I can check the other apartments. She stood up and stretched, working out the kinks in her back and wings from hunching over on the floor. Her wings tips brushed against opposite walls.

She found what she was looking for a few doors over. The remains of a large, worn wooden table sat piled in the corner, with three of its leg snapped off. Oh, that could work. With her claws dug into the underside of it, she managed to carry it to her apartment, only smacking it against the walls a couple times. There, that wasn’t that bad, she thought as she wrenched off the remaining leg by hand and set the table top down in the center of the living room. She sat down in front of it and found herself hunching over nearly as much as before.

“That’s not helpful,” she murmured.

I need to replace those legs. Oh… idea! She headed downstairs, and out towards an abandoned lot near her building. Bits of ruined or discarded building materials littered the area. Maybe these? She carried four cinder blocks back up to her apartment. She set the chipped and dirty cinder blocks up under the table where the legs used to be. It’s not as high as it was, but let’s see how it is. She sat cross legged at the table and put her elbows on it, spine straight. I have a table thing! She smiled and looked around before remembering there was no one else in the room.

I guess I have time to go flying again. Maybe. She headed to the roof of her building and looked around. It’s dark and quiet. I have time. She took off and flew parallel to the mountains, heading towards the skyscrapers of the city. The grid patterned streets passed by below her. There’s that big road thing that curves near that big stadium thing. I think I can make it to the road this time. I just need to be able to go higher.

She pulled up, just a bit. But that makes me go slower. And if I turn my wings the other way, I go faster, but down. She bobbed up and down in the air, trying to build up enough speed to gain enough height. This isn’t working. Maybe do what birds do. Flapping, right? But I need my wings out. Well, it might be worth a try. Falling doesn’t hurt that much. She pumped her wings, gradually gaining altitude. Yeah! I can do it! After some time, she came to the large, elevated road. The large green sign above it read ‘I-25 North’.

A glimmer of light over the horizon told her that it was time to return as everyone else began to wake up. She passed over the donut shop in the strip mall on her way back, already open and baking donuts. It still smelled amazing.

***

A few days passed as Olivia fell into a routine, and that Friday was no exception. She tumbled off the couch as the last light of the day began to fade and stumbled over to her small pile of clothes. The cleanest she pulled out and changed into. In the kitchen, she opened up the cupboards where she kept the food she’d found from around the city, using her knuckles to avoid putting any more gouges in the wooden doors.

Half a box of old chicken nuggets a careless drunk at a gas station had thrown out and a sugary cinnamon bun wrapped in a thin plastic wrapper composed of breakfast, followed by the last of her unopened water bottles. She kept several others, filling them up at public water fountains. Olivia had also found a battered digital clock in the trash can behind a house, but hadn’t managed to scavenge batteries for it yet, so she wasn’t sure of the exact time. Regardless, the sun had just set, so she had a while before she could leave.

She got up from her makeshift table and carved the sixth mark on the wall beside the front door with a claw. I’m not going to forget who I am, even if it means have to carve my life story on the walls. I’m not starting over again. Her memory, all six days of it, remained fine, but if it had been lost once, it could happen again. I existed before I woke up, right? I’m not a baby or anything.

With the latest mark cut deep into the drywall, Olivia moved on to cleaning her apartment, throwing discarded wrappers and shredded bits of fabric into an old salvaged trash bag with only a few holes in it. The less trash, the better the room smelled. She had been growing used to the constant assault of the city on her senses, though her nose still had its limits.

Cleaning finished, she got around to reading a paper she had somewhat accidentally pried out of its vending machine the night before. She’d tried opening one, just to see if it would, and wound up yanking the door off its plastic hinges. Olivia spread out the paper in front of her, elbows resting on the table. The front article was about the state governor’s recently uncovered scandal. Something involving several young men and women, an unabridged dictionary, and several gallons of lead based paint. The article started delving into the strange details of exactly what had happened, and she quickly flipped the page, her claw leaving a tear at the edge. No, I don’t want to know. No thank you.

The next page mentioned a war. Olivia’s brow furrowed as she read on. Two terrorists had triggered and thrown themselves at an army base in a place called Afghanistan with their newfound powers. One of the American casualties was a Colorado native. Olivia paused on the part about getting powers. Powers? She glanced at her scaly hands. That’s like being different, right? Is that what happened to me?

The rest of the newspaper was chock full of ads and trivial stories. Baby ducklings crossing a road with their mother got half a page worth of space. She finished with the paper after the seventh fluff piece, looked up to the window of the room, and listened. No sunlight came through, and she only heard the sounds of a few moving nearby cars. She ran to the roof top, ducking her head and folded wings under the doorways. She paused for a moment once she reached the roof, checking the streets for any bystanders she may have missed. She ran a couple steps the instant she was confident the coast was clear and leapt off the edge.

Her wings caught the air the moment her claws left the roof, letting her coast over the streets. She angled her wings up, just by an inch, gaining enough altitude to keep clear of any other rooftops. A set of power lines ran in parallel to her flight path, its cables a constant tangling menace. She weaved up and down, secure in the knowledge that no one would ever look up and see her in the night sky.

Olivia’s body relaxed, flowing with the dips and turns. She didn’t have to worry about anything in the air. No need to run around on the streets, torturing herself with anxiety that she had missed something or someone. She instead focused on keeping herself in the air. Her eyes combed the streets below her in perfect clarity, on the lookout for anything interesting. A car drove on below her, at about the same speed.

She flew at twice the height of most of the buildings in the area, though the downtown skyscrapers still loomed above her to the north. She couldn’t quite keep pace with the vehicles on the highways, but that was just another benchmark for her to reach.

An hour passed as she glided over the city, occasionally swooping down hard for the rush of air past her face. Once the novelty wore off, she decided to see if there was any food she could find. Maybe that donut place has some stuff. She landed onto a building overlooking what she referred to as the donut strip mall, the first notable place outside of her apartment building that she had any memory of visiting.

Before anything could catch her eye, she heard angry yelling from across the parking lot, hidden from view by the end of the mall. She hesitated before curiosity got the better of her. She glided to the top of an office building closer to where the shouting had come from, and froze.

Three men surrounded a woman with her back pressed against a wall. One held a hand to his ribs, glaring at the woman through an impressive black eye. Another man held the woman in place with a firm grip on her upper arm and a knife shoved under her throat. The third looked on with crossed arms and an unpleasant smile on his face. The injured man did not grin, instead unleashing a torrent of profanity at the woman. The woman for her part glared right back at the trio in spite of the knife.

Olivia’s breathing quickened. There was no one else nearby. Their surroundings were nothing but closed stores, offices, and empty parking lots. She heard no sirens coming their way. The woman’s cry for help had only brought Olivia. What do I do? I don’t have a phone. There were three of them and one of her. She had no experience fighting anyone, she didn’t want to hurt anyone. What am I doing? They have a knife. She could die and no one else is here to stop it.

She leapt from the top of the building and glided towards the group. She nearly tripped over the claws she had in place of heels as she landed, though she went unnoticed by the men or woman. Once she’d recovered, she shouted, “Hey! What are you doing?” The grinning man and black eye turned, the one with the knife not moving.

“Fuck off,” called out the one with the knife, his eyes still fixed on the woman.

At the same time grinning man and black eye turned to Olivia and froze. “What the hell?” said grinning man as the grin slid off his face. The woman and two men stared in shock at Olivia.

Knife man lowered his knife a bit and turned to get a look at her. He didn’t break and run, but tightened his grip on the knife and turned to face her, shifting his free hand from the woman’s upper arm to her throat. The third man’s hand drifted to his back. Leave her alone.

She uncurled her hands, revealing the long, dark grey claws, and snapped her wings outwards two feet to either side of her. Grinning man bolted down a nearby alley, followed closely by black eye and knife man, leaving the woman alone. Olivia turned to the woman, who pressed herself against the wall. Olivia realized that her teeth were bared and her claws were still out, ready to attack. She quickly straightened her back, folded her wings as best she could again, and curled her fingers, putting her hands behind her back.

“Um… Are you OK?” she asked the woman.

The woman’s eyes widened even further, but broke out of her shocked silence. “Yes. Yes I’m fine.”

“OK. Do…” Olivia trailed off as she tried to figure out what she should say next. A scream cut through the silence from the alley the would-be muggers had fled down. She heard grunts and dull thuds of flesh being hit, accompanied by cries of pain.

“Hang on,” she told the woman as she crept towards the alley.

The woman darted away before she finished. Olivia turned a corner and stopped dead. A man in black clothing and a metal mask held a gun to the forehead of knife man. Black eye was on the ground, Olivia could see blood trickling from his foot. The no longer grinning man lay collapsed next to him, grasping his throat and choking.

“Sanchez’s boys? I got some questions for you,” said the masked man, looming over the beaten knife man.

“No, you little prick,” he spat. “We’re gonna die. There’s a-”

“Not what I’m lookin’ for.” Masked man pulled the trigger.

The loud crack echoed off the surrounding walls. Oh god. Oh god he killed someone and he’s got a gun and he’s right there. Her heart raced, a cold sweat formed on the back of her neck.

The masked man noticed Olivia out of the corner of his eye as the echoes of the gunshot faded. He backed away a pace and muttered, “Shit.” His mask was a full face, grey metal thing, depicting a grinning face. What looked to be the butt of a long rifle poked over his left shoulder. He smelled of blood, metal, and curiously, donuts.

Olivia and the man in black watched each other warily, unmoving. He didn’t even came up to her shoulder. Olivia heard a sound and realized that she was hissing. Again her teeth were bared, claws were out, and she was tensed, ready to lunge. She cut the hissing out and slowly began to back away towards the street behind her. Don’t shoot, don’t shoot. The man didn’t move, didn’t react in any visible way. She reached the street, keeping an ear out for any following footsteps. The moment she realized there were none, she ran.

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Hunting Season: Start

She jerked awake in the middle of a thunderstorm. Noise assaulted her ears. Lots of noise. Cars, talking, music, screaming, machines, sirens, the storm, all forced their way into her ears in a nonsensical jumble. Then she made the mistake of opening her eyes.

Her eyes strained, the blitz of the sensory overload overwhelming her. They struggled to focus with the shock of bright lights and vivid detail, taking in every chip and abrasion on the concrete she lay on. She recoiled and rolled her head to the side, only to be blinded by a streetlight a few paces away. As she tried to draw breath, she gagged at the smells that burned her nose. The stench of rot from the dumpster beside her stood out amid the gas fumes and rain. Two things dug into her back, just below the shoulder blades.

The cold rain spurred her to roll over and stagger upright, though she felt two weights pull on her back. Immediately, she lost her balance and almost toppled forward.

Toes. Why am I on my toes? she thought.

She clung to a wall for support, unsteady legs wobbling beneath her. The shock of a crack of thunder made her knees buckle and her eyes screw shut. Make it stop, make it stop, make it stop. She pressed her hands to her ears, desperate to stop the ringing in her ears. For a moment it felt like her ears were pressed against the concrete again.

Rain. Cold. Where am I?

She forced her eyes open and shied away from the street light, blinking a couple times to get the rainwater out. A metal door a few feet from her across the alleyway caught her attention. She pushed off the wall and stumbled towards it, her feet scraping along the cracked and crumbling concrete.

Make it stop.

Something pulled on the back of her foot as she neared the doorway, tripping her. Her shoulder hit it, and something metal shrieked in protest as the heavy, imposing door snapped back. She collapsed on the ground again, laying face down halfway through the doorway. Something fell over her, partially covering her head. With a small groan, she reached out to get up once again. Her breath caught in her throat as her eyes spotted something.

Hands. Green. Big. Big green hands.

The long fingers of the scaled hands before her ended in sharp, curved claws. What? She twitched what she thought was her index finger. The corresponding finger in front of her twitched. What? Mine? No, that’s not right. That can’t be right. Her eyes followed a hand to her wrist, where the thick scales ended and transitioned to normal human skin. Wrist to arm, arm to the rest of her. She forced herself back onto her feet, still unsteady, and held her hands in front of her. Still green. Still clawed. No, no, no.

She looked down and saw her feet were in a very similar condition, the scales ending just below where her ankles would have been. For a moment, she only saw four toes, though a fifth clawed toe took the place of her heel, keeping her from standing flat footed. Her heart pounded. Something of hers twitched, sliding along the tiled floor. Wait, what? She whirled around, catching sight of an enormous leathery wing behind her before she fixated on her tail.

No, no, no. The heavy tail, covered in the same olive green scales as those on her hands, dragged on the floor. She curled it experimentally. That’s a tail. My tail. It started from the small of her back, a seemingly natural extension of her spine, and eventually tapered off to a point about five feet later. She twisted her head around to get a good view of the wing that had been covering her face when she’d fallen. There were two; they emerged from each shoulder blade up to a couple inches above her head, then folded back down and ended at about her knees. Fully folded, they didn’t fit neatly against her back, instead poking out a couple inches to either side of her.

This can’t be real. Lightning flashed. A fraction of a second later a crack of thunder rumbled the building. She screamed as the shock made her lose control of her legs for a moment, sending her sprawling. Make it stop. Once she recovered, she grabbed the dented metal door and forced it shut, deadening the sounds from outside to tolerable levels.

She scrunched her eyes shut. The wings dug into her back as she leaned her back against the wall. This can’t be real. Wake up. Come on, wake up. Why am I naked? Is there anyone here? Oh god, oh god, what am I?

She couldn’t remember. She couldn’t remember any friends, boyfriends, or even girlfriends. Not even acquaintances. Not even family members. Not even the day or month or year. No parents, no names, no faces, no locations. Nothing. The harder she tried to remember, the harder she remembered absolutely nothing. She couldn’t remember her own name. She had no idea who or where or what she was. She reopened her eyes and looked around, in the vain hope of anything providing her with an answer.

She didn’t smell anything besides musty air in the building she lurched into. No sounds of movement beyond the rain, no people she could see. Tarps covered the front windows. Stripes of light came in through the boarded up windows beyond. The smooth ceramic tiling of the floor might have been considered pretty at one point, but was now cracked and scuffed. To her right was another door, made of wood and glass instead of metal. Other than a toppled office chair in a corner, the building was completely devoid of anything or anyone besides her, her lack of memories, and dust. She slid to the floor and broke down fully.

***

She woke with a start to the sound of her stomach grumbling. Her eyes took in her ruined and abandoned surroundings before she had a chance to think. Where am I? Oh, right. She sat upright and wrapped her arms around her knees, wings splayed to either side. Sunlight beamed in through the windows as she tried to cut through her mental fog and piece together what had happened. Rain. I was trying to get out of the rain. Right. I came in here. I must have fallen asleep. That’s it. She glanced at her scaled hands and took a deep breath. I’m some weird monster thing. I remember that.

Sleep had neither returned her memory, nor revealed that she was in some sort of horrible, twisted dream. She could still hear nearly everything going on around her, all swirling together in a cacophony of noises. Ignore it. Just ignore it. I’m breathing. I can hear that. I know what that is. Focus on that.

Her tail thrashed nervously behind her. Oh, right. I have a tail, but no name. Maybe this isn’t real. Maybe. I hope. She took in another shaky breath and forced herself to stand. Her wings she folded behind her, using the wall for support as she balanced on her clawed feet. Her heel claws still threw her off balance. Maybe I should just stand on my toes? The more weight she put on the balls of her feet, the more balanced she felt. She removed her hand from the wall and took a tentative step forward. Her tail behind her straightened without her thinking about it, keeping her balanced. OK. That’s better. I can do this. Now what?

She took a few more hesitant steps. Her tail swished and dragged along on the ground, kicking up dust along the way. Everything just smells like dust. She sneezed. I should look around. Dust can’t be everywhere. Should I look around? What if there are other people? But I can’t just stay here, there’s nothing here. I haven’t seen anyone else so far. I guess I can look around. Maybe there’s food somewhere.

She half walked, half stumbled to a nearby door. Within was a staircase, with a few tiny windows along one wall letting light in. Darn it. More dust. She stepped forward and promptly smacked her head on the top of the door frame. Darn it. She eyed the door, then ducked her head down and stepped forward again. Her wings caught on the door frame. The sudden pull on her back caught her off balance. With her weight pushed onto the claws on her heels, she staggered back and fell down.

I just want to go through a door. Please? Crouching down and twisting her wings finally did the trick. Her claws dug into the steps as she climbed. One story up, she opened another door to a long hallway, lined with numbered doors. She poked her head into the nearest one, its door half off its hinges and mostly open. OK. Is that weird? Is there anyone here?

Just like the lobby downstairs, more dust kicked up by the opening door greeted her. And just like the lobby, the apartment seemed gutted. Debris had accumulated in small piles in the corners of the bare concrete. The next few apartments held the same: nothing. She moved on, going up story by story, until the first apartment on the fourth floor. There she found something that might have been livable before. The carpets, though threadbare and dusty, were still there. Light, which had grown weaker as time passed, still filtered in through the clear plastic coverings on the windows.

An old couch in surprisingly reasonable condition took up the center of the living room against a wall. The ache in her neck and back made her wish she had slept on that couch instead of the floor. She caught sight of the room’s light switch. Doesn’t hurt to check. She flicked it, though the lights remained dead.

I don’t think there’s anyone here. It doesn’t really smell like it. Maybe there’s food! She searched the kitchen to the right of the entrance, but came up empty handed. No food in the cupboards, no water came when she tested the faucet. She sighed, her mouth dry and stomach grumbling. Where else would have water? She found a bathroom, and her nose tingled as it picked up a faint chemical odor in the new room. No water came from the sink when she twirled the handle. Of course.

She looked back up at the mirror, for the first time getting a good look at herself. The eyes that meet her gaze were entirely silver iris without whites, with vertical slits for pupils. Messy brown hair draped down past her shoulders. Wait, what? She examined her mouth. Oh no. Rather than normal, rectangular human teeth, her mouth was lined entirely with sharp, pointy, triangular teeth, with a forked tongue to round it off.

One deep breath. A second deep breath. Why? Her claws gouged the ceramic sink as she gripped it. Leave me alone. Just leave me alone. Stop making every little thing weird and wrong, she ranted to herself. Her grip on the sink relaxed after a moment as she calmed herself. The empty ache in her stomach made its presence known once again. This isn’t helping. I just need to figure out what’s going on. She tore herself away from the mirror and returned the rest of the apartment.

In the closet of the large bedroom to the left of the entrance, she found blankets and sheets. She spread the blankets out on the couch, shying away from the the cloud of dust kicked up. That looks like it will be enough. I guess it will have to be.

She held a musty, off-white sheet in front of her. Could I just wrap this around myself? It’s big. Maybe fold it in half first? The claw of her middle finger caught in the fabric as she wrestled with it. What? No. Stupid sharp claws. She reflexively jerked her hand away, widening the tear even more, the sheet still wrapped around her hand. She dropped the sheet to avoid ripping into it any more. Stupid, stupid.

She took a deep breath. Just take it slowly this time. Having to work around wings and a tail put a damper on her inner fashion designer, but she eventually wrapped the sheet around herself with minimal catastrophic tearing. It’s better than nothing, I guess.

With the gnawing hunger still in her stomach, she returned to the living room. Her feet had torn up the carpeting wherever she’d walked, leaving little tufts of brown sticking out of the floor. The glare of the sun through a hole in the plastic window covering caught her eye.

I haven’t looked outside yet. Are there people around? Maybe I’m not so weird.

She closed her eyes for a moment and concentrated. Distant talking reached her, though she couldn’t make out what they were saying. Something large went by. She tore aside the taped up plastic sheet from the window, keeping away from the window herself. A few people walked outside below her. She heard movement, and a car drove by.

OK, that’s what a car sounds like. But no one has any wings. They’re all normal. Now what am I supposed to do?

She retreated from the window and crashed sideways on the couch. Her wing twisted inward, and the back of the couch bent her tail near her spine. Her surprised flails threw her off the couch. She shot back to her feet and uncurled her claws as she whirled around on the couch. It did not react. Of course.

She relaxed and sat on at the edge of the couch with enough room between her back and the back of the couch for her to curl her tail around. She relaxed her wings to either side of her, having kept them tightly folded against her back since she’d gotten up that day. Oh! That feels so much better. She stretched them out fully, each nearly as long as the couch itself. Wow. Those are… big.

Her stomach grumbled once again, catching her attention. Where can I find food? She paused when she remembered her teeth.

Sharp teeth. That means something. Meat? Something to do with that? Her mouth watered. That does sound good. But I’m really hungry right now, anything sounds good. I can smell so many people all around. That means food. They have to eat stuff too. The low, constant pain in her stomach persisted. She leaned her head back, stretching her neck. Maybe I can find out if something is going on. There’s not much here. Maybe I’ll go outside when the sun is down. It’ll be better than just sitting here.

***

Several hours later, she found herself back at the ground floor of the building, facing the dented metal door from last night. Open it. Just open it. I need food. Her hands did not comply. Maybe there are other people like me. People won’t think I’m weird. Who am I kidding? No one else looked like me at all. I’m just some weird monster thing. They’ll probably just throw me in a zoo or something.

Her stomach growled. She winced as her stomach convulsed with pain for a moment. It doesn’t have to take long. I won’t go far enough to get lost. I can hear really well. I’ll hear someone coming. Just open the door. She took a deep breath, opened the door, and took a few paces outside. No hordes of angry people arrived to jeer at her. The dumpster still smelled awful, but other than that, the air smelled just like a city would smell. A great stew of indistinct scents, many of which made her nose wrinkle. This isn’t bad.

She set off in a random direction, sticking to alleys, though the streets of the city seemed almost deserted. Sirens whined in the distance, though they never came too close. She rustled her wings a bit, her feet feeling stretched and sore every time her heel claws touched the ground. Flying would be cool. I don’t know how, but it would be cool.

A strip mall came up as she crept along; the Rocky Mountain Shopping Center according to the large sign in the parking lot out front. She sniffed. What’s that! She whipped her head around, searching for the source of the sugary smell. Her eyes caught sight of a smiling donut with stick hands and feet. Donuts! She frowned at the sight of the darkened windows below the sign. Maybe later. Among the shops of the strip mall was a drug store. Out back, lit by several large bright lights, a man unloaded crates of bottles from the back of a truck.

Water! He has water! But do I just ask for some? What if he says no? Or just runs away? How else do I get some water, though? Just take it? What if I get caught? I don’t want to steal. But I just need some water, just a couple bottles. He has so many. I don’t see anyone else. I guess he’s the only one out here.

She crept up as close as she could to the truck. Even with the sun down, she could see perfectly fine, with or without the lights. The worker stomped away with another load, grumbling something about his lazy ass partner. She ran as fast as she could to the back. Her feet skidded as her claws found traction. Don’t trip. Please don’t trip. She grabbed a crate. It was far lighter than she thought it would be, but she saw the water and wasn’t about to complain.

She rushed off before the man returned, straight back to her apartment. One of the plastic bottles had a large hole in it from a claw, but otherwise nothing had gone wrong. She downed an entire bottle, and the awful scratchy feeling in her mouth finally vanished.

OK, that didn’t go so bad. She returned to the streets, heading in the opposite direction of the strip mall. Soon, she stumbled upon a newspaper vending machine thing for a paper called the Westward City Times. In its window was the front page, dated Saturday, April 13, 2013. Is that the name of this city? Or are we just west of something? The front page story of the newspaper didn’t make any particular sense to her. A man in front of a burning building stood with fire shooting out of his hands. What? Why would he light a building on fire? That can’t be real, can it?

Just below the headline, she caught sight of the line ‘by Olivia Parker’. She spotted a couple more names skimming the article itself. People have names. I need one, right? I don’t have one, I don’t think. Could I just come up with one? What are some names? She looked back at the newspaper, her eyes drawn once again to the reporter’s name. Olivia sounds like a nice name. Is it weird that I’m taking it from someone else, though? She looked around at the empty streets. Well, no one else is around to call me weird. I guess I’m Olivia.

Olivia heard a car draw closer from behind her. She didn’t know if it would turn down the street she was on, but she darted down an alleyway just in case. Right, food. Her heavy, awkward stomps had a bit more bounce to them as she left. I have a name now. Olivia. I like it.

After two hours of fruitless searching and hiding, the tall buildings around Olivia gave way to row upon row of houses. She shied away, the grass lawns ahead of her didn’t offer any place to hide, until she spotted several garbage bags piled on the sidewalk with a sleeve sticking out of the top of one. The sign on the bags said something about a pick up for a homeless shelter. Real clothes. But… I can’t just steal these. I won’t die without them. These are for other people. Homeless people, too. But I guess I don’t really have a home. I can just take a couple things, and put the rest back. That makes it better, right?

Grabbing two bags, Olivia returned to her apartment once more. The clothes were old, but mercifully clean. After a set of underwear, she pulled out a pair of jeans that looked like they might fit. As she attempted to put them on, her heel claw caught on the first pant leg. Oh no! She jumped slightly, her front toes extended a bit, and the last eight inches of the jeans were shredded beyond repair. Oops. Maybe something not as tight. She dug up two pairs of large, baggy cargo pants and put them on successfully, though they only reached halfway down her shins.

Tops were a bit trickier. The hem of the shirt caught on her wings as she pulled it down. After cutting bigger and bigger holes in the back, she eventually just cut two long slits all the way down a t-shirt, starting a couple inches under the collar. It wasn’t perfect, but far more dignified than being wrapped in a bed sheet. She tailored several shirts accordingly, then stuffed the rest of the clothes back into the bags.

OK, I’m making progress.

After dropping off the bags where she’d found them, Olivia spent the rest of the night dodging people, with success, and looking for food, with no success. She wasn’t desperate enough to dumpster dive quite yet, but she had seen what smelled like perfectly good food being thrown out behind a fast food joint. But those dumpsters smell so awful.

There were few people out, even for the time of night. There was the occasional yell or scream in the night, but there were few cars and fewer pedestrians. Olivia could always hear a siren through the cool air though, sometimes very close by. Why are those always on?

Olivia returned back to her apartment as the sun started to rise again, her stomach feeling like it was about to eat itself from the inside out. She lay face first on the couch, her feet sticking off of the side. Laying on her back just pushed her wings and tail into her back. Look at me. I’m thinking of dumpster diving. What’s the point? I’m just kidding myself. I’m just some weird monster thing. People would probably run screaming from me the moment I show up anywhere.

Olivia cried herself to sleep again that night.

More News

I’ll be starting over from the beginning, with the story heavily edited. It will start very similarly, however. The old chapters will be labeled as such and kept in a separate folder on the site for posterity. Other changes include the removal of those side story things, and reformatting into a more book format, rather than the old arc format. First chapter of Book 1: Hunting Season goes up September 9th, 8:00 PM MDT.

End of version 1: Rip out my Beating Heart – Sacrifice

Once night fell, Olivia took to the skies as her friends below climbed into their cars. She followed overhead as they headed towards the first of five locations Amanda had pinpointed. If they failed, she had set up an automated alert to inform the police of everything they’d learned if they didn’t return in six hours. Maybe if we hand them all the information they’ll do something.

The cool night air rushed past Olivia’s face, sending her ponytail bobbing against the back of her neck. Three people. Three people are counting on us and no one else. Olivia sniffed, in vain hope she could pick up Ix’s scent. The tingling in her arm had faded, only noticeable if she concentrated on it. Roach had insisted he was back in fighting shape, though his poorly hidden winces and arm rubs hadn’t evaded Olivia.

The comm in Olivia’s ear picked up some ambient noise in one of the cars below before Ben said, “Comin’ up on the first spot, Little Bird. You’re our eye in the sky.”

“OK.”

The one thing she truly loved about Arizona weather was the absolutely clear skies at nearly any time of day. Olivia climbed about thirty more feet into the air, getting a higher vantage point on the low adobe building on the outskirts of a Phoenix suburb. A few dim yellow streetlights flickered over streets spiderwebbed with old tar repairs.

“Not seein’ anythin’,” announced Rob as his truck rumbled past. That thing really isn’t stealthy. “Closed. No one there.”

“Anything up there, Olivia?” asked Amanda.

Olivia focused on the rooftop. The AC wasn’t humming away, and nothing else stuck out. “No.”

“Miya?”

“Nothing on the cow skull,” she replied.

“Might not have summoned a demon yet,” pointed out Rob.

“Let me check infrared.,”  said Amanda.

“Would demons show up on that?” asked Quarrel.

“Doesn’t matter, they’re not what we’re looking for.” Amanda paused for a moment before adding. “Clear.”

The moved on to the next target. Phoenix was more active at night than Westward. In the more densely populated areas after dark, Olivia spotted far more people walking, and more cars on the road. None of them drove or walked erratically, though Olivia still kept a close eye on them until they were heading away from the others.

“Such pain in the ass,” grumbled Ben. “I miss when we just fuckin’ knew where they were.”

***

They pulled up to the fourth location after an hour and a half of flying or driving and two more dead ends. Are we going to be too late? The darkened neon sign in front of the building read “Groceries” beneath something in Nahua. Old, heavy plywood blocked the front sliding glass doors.

“That’s new,” murmured Miya over the comms the moment Rob’s truck drew close.

“What?” asked Olivia.

“The cow skull is freaking out,” explained Miya. “This has got to be it.”

“She’s doing something,” said Amanda. “We don’t have much time. Olivia, how does the back look?”

Olivia coasted over the building, getting a good look at the the closed metal doors and a loading bay for semi trucks. “Not boarded up. There is a car back here, though.”

“Alright, keep circling, I’ll let you know where you’re needed.” Over the comms, Olivia heard a few clicks from Amanda. “Infrared is showing about 25 people in there. It’s hard to tell. Most of them seem to be around the back doors. There’s a handful near the center right and… one is cooling.” What? Wait, oh no.

“But the other two are still alive?” demanded Quarrel.

“For now,” said Amanda. “Olivia, Ben, and Rob, you three go in through the front door and get their attention The rest of us will break in through the back.”

“They gonna fall for that again?” asked Ben.

“They will if Olivia is big and scary and you shoot them.”

“Fair enough. Don’t expect it to be perfect though.”

“I don’t.” Amanda continued, “There are a lot more of them than there are of us. We need to move fast and keep them on the defensive before they can overwhelm us.”

Rob parked his car a short ways down the street as Olivia coasted back towards the front door to the abandoned grocery store. The two triplets joined her as the other four circled around. The triplets slipped on their masks and drew their weapons.

“Ready, ‘liv’?” asked Gears.

With a nod, she took a deep breath and dug her clawed feet into the ground. With both hands, she struck out at the double doors. Something metal groaned in response on the other side, meeting her with far more resistance than she expected. A second blow sent the plywood and reinforcements tumbling back with the screech of twisting metal. Before she could even think about taking a step inside, at least three rifles opened fire, pummelling her with lead. She raised her arms to cover her head as best she could and pushed forward into the withering fire.

Inside, empty shelves were pushed into barricades in a semi-circle around front door. Four Aztec soldiers knelt behind them, with shouting in Nahua echoing deeper into the repurposed grocery store. Another handful of bullets hit Olivia in the sternum, sending a lance of pain deeper into her. She turned and hurled herself towards the nearest barricade twenty feet to her right, tumbling over the cheap grey metal into a heap of wings and limbs.

The simple act of drawing air into her lungs had become harder than it should have been. The gunfire had taken a toll on her chest. Bullets plinked around her cover, with the only return fire coming from a handgun at the front door. The triplets are still outside. She let out a growl and got back to her feet, wings tucked tight against her back. Still, a bullet grazed the bone a few inches from her head.

She dug her claws under the barricade and heaved it upwards, sending it spiraling toward the nearest pair of soldiers. With a shout, they dived in separate directions out of the way of the careening metal. She was on top of the nearest in two long strides. She wrapped her hands around his chest, lifted him high into the air, and slammed his back into the ground. His helmeted head cracked against the dirty linoleum tiles.

His partner screamed in anger, ducking under her grasping hand and driving an armored fist into her ribs. As she took another swing at him, he jumped back and pulled a knife from his belt. Renewed gunfire rang out around them, though none of it hit Olivia again. Through it all, she could hear slow, heavy footsteps stomping towards them.

The soldier directly in front of Olivia, a taller man with an old burn scar on his cheek, feigned at swipe with his knife at her chest, than jabbed it down towards her thigh. She let out a hiss of pain as it drew blood. Iron. Shouting from all around filled the whole store. He pulled back before her hand could connect. She backed away a pace, keeping her arms at the ready. The soldier took his chance, immediately scrambling back and out of her reach and reaching for his rifle dangling from a cord on his chest. Wait, no. She rushed forward, clawed feet scratching up the floor for traction. Her strides, nearly a foot longer than his own, put her right back on top of him in an instant.

He cursed in Nahua and dropped his rifle once again. Olivia’s swipe went wide again, as he slashed his knife at her, scoring a small cut on her hip. She turned her side towards him, getting him to jump back again. Her tail whipped around a second later, catching him unawares in the shin. He went down with a strangled cry of pain. She brought her foot down on his chest, enough to knock the wind and the fight out of him instead of simply crushing him.

More footsteps approached her. She turned with a hiss, before the smell caught her attention. The triplets hurried up to her.

“We’re with you,” said Gears, patting her on the shoulder as he passed. “This way.”

Skulker teleported ahead, leading the way past a low wall of empty shelves. “Wait,” said Olivia. They ran directly into the source of the heavy footsteps. A slab like figure stood before them, encased in thick armor from head to toe and wielding a gun the size of Olivia’s leg. His breathing came in slow, measured rasps beneath a heavy helmet and gas mask. A squad of soldiers flanked him on either side. If all of them are here, where are Amanda and the others?

Skulker fired his pistol at the armored figure as he jumped back. The bullet glanced right off, leaving little more than a small score on the breastplate. The armored man didn’t so much as flinch. “The fuck is this shit?” cursed Skulker under his breath.

With a wheezing grunt, the armored man lifted his massive gun and opened fire. A wave of bullets flew past them as Olivia and the triplets dove for cover. Shouting filled the air to either side of them, as the squads of soldiers who’d accompanied the armored man now fanned out around Olivia and the others.

“Keep ‘em off us!” yelled Gears as one of the soldiers fired a few shots at him. In a few moments, their cover wouldn’t cover them from anyone other than the armored man. He fired a few inaccurate bursts over their heads. Olivia poked her head over the top, and ducked back down immediately as another hail of bullets chewed up the air above her.

We can’t stay here. She stood in a low crouch and charged towards one of the groups of soldiers. A wave bullets chased after her, and the soldiers she’d targeted immediately backed out of her reach. She hissed in frustration as they fired at her, a few bullets catching her in the side. The air was thick with heat and gunpowder smoke. As the soldiers retreated in good order, half covering the backs of the others as they hurried away from her, Olivia pulled a nearby shelf between them and her. She took a quick look at the triplets. Skulker had teleported out from the armored man’s line of sight, though both he and Gears could only take potshots at the other squad of soldiers trying to flank them. No. Armored guy.

She took a deep breath before digging her feet into the ground and sprinting at the armored man, closing the distance before he could fire too many rounds into her already sore and aching chest. Instead of firing, he froze. The muffled breathing beneath his mask turned into low laughter as she made contact.

She may as well have taken a swing at the earth itself. Her claws raked against his chest, not even leaving scratches. His gun fired again. Olivia felt a massive burning pain in her shin, her knee nearly buckling. The barrel of the gun had turned cherry red, the air around it shimmering violently, though the man holding it seemed to have no issues with the intense heat. She instinctively backed away, an angry hiss in her throat.

Another swing, the man froze, and her claws raked right off of him. Movement. Olivia changed tactics, hooking two claw into the receiver of his gun. The gun was just as invulnerable as his armor, but she could push back if he tried to aim it in any way. He let out a frustrated growl. His arm moved, reaching for a sidearm. She pushed, again into an unyielding mountain. She let go of his main gun and grabbed for his other arm, getting shot three times in the arm for her trouble. Again, she backed away.

His breathing grew heavier and heavier. Olivia stalked around him, ready to strike the moment he moved. They circled a few feet apart, Olivia unable to get in close fast enough, he unable to aim without opening himself up to her claws. In the middle of another pivot, a crossbow bolt sprouted from the base of his skull, between the helmet and the upper back plate. He stood for a moment, before crashing to the ground with a great clatter of ceramic plates. Olivia blinked. Oh, OK.

“How did you know?” Olivia asked as Quarrel hurried up to her.

“Know what?” replied Quarrel, out of breath.

“When he could be hurt?”

“What?” repeated Quarrel.

“Never mind. Thank you.”

“Where the fuck were you guys?” demanded Gears as he regrouped with them, now that there wasn’t a massive gun or fight keeping them pinned. His brother fired a few shots behind him at the remaining soldiers.

“Busy, hurry up,” said Quarrel in a rush, leading them further into the store. Olivia brought up the rear, hobbling on her battered leg. One or two bullets hit her back, getting more hisses of pain out of her.

Roach and Delta had pressed themselves against either side of a partially opened door leading to the back of the store. Olivia couldn’t smell anything past the door besides gunpowder, couldn’t hear anything besides a high pitched ringing in her ears.

“You OK?” asked Delta. “We’re almost there. This is the home stretch.” Shouting in Nahua picked up behind them.

“Now,” rasped Roach. Gears stood beside him and patted him on the shoulder. Roach rushed in, followed by Gears.

Floodlights blinded Olivia as she entered last. She squinted through the bright light and spotted. Two people lay bound at a bloody altar of steel. One man, one woman, both dead silent. A third person, a man, lay in a heap at the foot of the altar, his chest a bloody mess.

And in the center of it all stood Ix, looking down on Olivia’s group with disdain. The small scar on her upper lip only emphasized her sneer. From the blood splatters coating her, she’d hacked the dead man’s chest open herself with the long, obsidian knife in her hand. Familiar patterns of blood coated the altar, as well as the floor around it.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” demanded Quarrel. She stepped to the side, her crossbow wavering between Ix and the closest soldier.

“They will not feel a thing,” replied Ix, her voice easily carrying through the ringing in Olivia’s’ ears. “Their deaths will serve us here, and they will serve the gods after.”

Olivia looked back at the captives. The woman’s head lolled around, her eyes blinking as if trying to focus. The old man beside her had his eyes closed, his chest rising and falling slowly. What’s wrong with them?

“We don’t give a shit. Step down before we shoot the fuck outta you,” snapped Skulker.

Magic in sickly green ribbons gathered around Ix’s arms. “Then you will be the first test for this new weapon.”

Everyone who could fired. Their bullets caught in the air in slow motion, as if shooting through syrup. Sweat beaded on Ix’s forehead as the knife plunged down into the chest of the bound woman. Magic shot from the altar through the blood, swirling and writhing with new energy.

“The blood!” said Olivia.

Skulker leveled his pistol at the floor to Ix’s right, as his brother fired his shotgun to the left. The bullet and slug skidded off the concrete around her, sending a handful of sparks flying. Ix flinched, releasing the magic. The glow in the blood pattern changed from green to pitch black as the bullets severed several ribbons of magic.

“What did you do?” asked Miya, backing away with wide eyes and a whitening face. Uh oh.

The air grew cold around them. Olivia felt the hair at the back of her neck rise. She let out a hiss, backing away from the ritual site as every instinct in her screamed danger. As the man let out his last breath, a darkness formed in the circle before Ix. In the blood circle, what Olivia could only describe as a black mass formed. Four reptilian eyes started at her from within. Then only two, than eight, with no discernible change. They were, and then they weren’t. The demon glided over the blood boundaries toward a paralyzed Ix. All light and sound vanished from the room.

<- Previous Chapter

Rip Out my Beating Heart – Aftershock

“These trends transcend culture, and suggests that such metaphysical concepts are ingrained in the human… psyche, said Ben, reading off of the research paper Ix had taken an interest in. He slouched into the couch cushion, head resting on the palm of his maimed hand. “Any idea what the fuck that means?”

Olivia frowned. “Metaphysical?” she asked from the opposite end of the couch.

“That’s what I thought.” Ben grimaced and tossed his copy of the paper back onto the coffee table in front of them. “Amanda’s the only one of us with one of those fancy college degrees, ain’t she?”

“I think so. But she’s probably really busy right now.” I hope she’s having a better time than we are.

“I know, I know,” said Ben. He got up and stretched his legs. “We need to take a step back. We don’t give a damn about the nitty gritty nonsense. What’s the broad stroke of this thing?”

Oh, it had a pretty good summary at the beginning. I think it lulled us into a false sense of security. Olivia turned her copy back to the front page and skimmed it to refresh her memory. “I think… I think it’s saying that magic can be used to influence people’s minds. Unconsciously, through dreams.”

“OK, an’ later he’s saying there’s a human mental web thing, an’ that magic can fuck with it.”

“Yes,” she said hesitantly. Right there in the title. The The Effects of Magic on the Human Experience of Dreams.

“And there ain’t any mention of souls or demons or shit like that.”

“Yes.”

“Why did Ix want this? This don’t got shit to do with what she’s doin’. Why this?”

A half remembered memory tugged at the back of Olivia’s mind. “Taauth.”

“What about him?”

“She’s trying to hurt Taauth,” explained Olivia, the memory slipping from her grasp every time she tried to focus on it.

Ben snapped his fingers. “She’s tryin’ to get at Taauth with this. How?” He shook his head. “Never mind, don’t care. Point is, she wasn’t puttin’ all her eggs in one demon-y basket.”

“He can’t really get hurt physically,” said Olivia. “Like Cyrus.”

“So she was thinkin’ about goin’ after his mind. I gotcha. Who wrote this thing?” asked Ben.

“Jonathan Gizenga,” said Olivia, reading off the top of the page. The half memory faded from her mind once again.

“Got your tablet with you? Wanna see what else he’s written about.”

She grabbed her tablet form her room upstairs and set it on the table. One quick search later, she said, “A lot of dream stuff.” She skimmed further down the screen. “He has Ph.Ds in psychology and applied magical theory.”

“Applied? So he can actually use the stuff he’s talkin’ about.”

“It sounds like it.”

They settled back in silence for a few minutes, each reading Dr. Gizenga’s publication history.

Ben grunted and said, “This seems a lot less evil than demons an’ human sacrifice an’ shit. Let’s send this on to Cyrus, see if he can do somethin’ with it. I think this is a dead end for figuring out Ix, though.”

“We haven’t seen any mental magic stuff from her, have we?” asked Olivia.

“No,” replied Ben.

“Would we remember?” She’d better not have messed with our memories.

Ben grimaced. “Not somethin’ I wanna think about. Let’s see what Amanda pulled from her computer before we go further with that shit.”

“I give up,” announced Miya, cutting off Olivia as she was about to respond. She stomped into the living room and flung herself on the couch between Olivia and Ben. The papers she’d been given hit the coffee table a moment later.

“That bad?” asked Olivia. She kept her wings spread out behind them, keeping herself cool. The air conditioning of Quarrel’s house seemed to struggle with six extra people, along with the hundred degrees of mid July Arizona heat outside.

Miya flipped a couple pages with unnecessary force, coming just shy of slapping it and her hand into the table. “I don’t know all magic. Whatever Ix is doing, how she’s doing it, it’s miles above me.”

“Really?” asked Ben. Yeah. You always seemed to know before.

“I do simple stuff. Bones want to heal, I speed it up. Ix sent a stream of biological magic through nonbiological air to make a self sustaining acid in a person’s bloodstream. She’s fucking around with the fabric of existence with this,” Miya replied.

“Don’t got any guesses?” asked Ben. “That’s quitter talk.”

“Fuck off. I’ve got nothing. I know she’s doing the soul severing thing. That’s it. That’s my guess. I couldn’t tell you if it takes five minutes or five days. I couldn’t tell you if the person needs to be conscious or not. I couldn’t tell you where all the power for this comes from.”

But don’t you mess with existence too? “You do impossible stuff none of us can do, too,” Olivia pointed out.

“You can fly. If I showed you blueprints for an airplane, would you know what the hell is going on?” Olivia shook her head. Miya offered her the papers. “Here’s my thing. Take a look at it.” She stared in confusion at technical magical diagrams that seemed to be portraying a human body. Beyond that, the complex, color coded lines had no meaning to her.

“But you still do magic. It’s still amazing.”

“Thanks,” said Miya, sticking her tongue out at Ben.

“Maybe we all take a quick break for a little bit?” said Olivia, standing and uncurling her tail from around her legs. “It’s not going anywhere.”

“That sounds great.”

Ben shrugged. “I ain’t gonna tell you no, but I wanna spend a bit more time on this. Mind if I take this for a bit?” He held up Olivia’s tablet and wiggled it in his hands.

“Sure.”

Olivia had discovered Quarrel kept a large supply of ice cream in the back of her freezer. She and Miya helped themselves to a bowl each. She found herself reaching to scratch the thin scars on her forearms before stopping herself as they leaned against the kitchen counter. It hasn’t gotten any better.

“I have a question.,” said Olivia, halfway through a scoop of chocolate ice cream.

“What?”

“Well, Ix hit me with the same stuff she hit Roach with. Maybe it’s sticking around with me.”

“Let me check.” Miya lay her hand on Olivia’s forearm, her eyes turning a deep red. “It’s at about the same level as Roach’s right now. Your body is just stomping on it, while his has to take the burn and then heal. You should be fine, but let me know if you feel anything change.”

“OK. Thank you!”

They chatted about nothing in particular as they finished their ice cream. Olivia squinted as the setting sun passed in front of her, beaming between the shades of the window in the kitchen.

“Want to go check on the others?” asked Miya as they set their bowl in the sink.

Olivia heard several sets of footsteps approaching. “No. They’re coming.”

“We all hit a wall at the same time,” Miya murmured to herself.

“They might have had better luck,” Olivia pointed out. Come on. Try and stay positive.

The whole team assembled in the living room with various levels of energy. Amanda nearly bowled Miya over as she rushed over to the center, Ix’s old laptop in hand. Miya and Olivia, meanwhile, simply slumped back into their old seats.

“Everyone ready?” asked Amanda, once they were all settled.

“I’ve got nothing,” barked Miya, undercutting her.

Amanda bit back what she was about to say, though she shot a surprised look at her.

Miya recapped for the other what she’d told Ben and Olivia. “I will say this,” she said at the end of her spiel. “Ix’s plans don’t really matter anymore. She failed. She wanted to save Mexico, but Taauth beat her to the punch.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Olivia saw Roach nod in agreement.

“I know Cuauhtemoc was the king, but will it really be that bad?” asked Amanda. “Don’t they have a chain of command?”

“Oh, Mexico is fucked now,” said Miya, her tone of voice giving no room for doubt. “I give it two months for the whole thing to collapse. There’s a hundred different groups the Aztecs oppressed that only Cuauhtemoc kept a lid on. Without a walking god on the Aztec goernment’s side, they’re going to have rebellions everywhere. The Mayans will be having a field day.”

“Mayans?” asked Olivia.

“Yeah, durin’ the first Mexican-American war we learned real quick to not fight Cuauhtemoc out in the open,” explained Rob. “Whenever he got uppity south of the border we’d just ship boats of guns an’ ammo to the Yucatan. Mayans would take ‘em an’ keep doin’ that guerilla war they do so well. Cuauhtemoc would have to turn more of his attention there. Repeat as necessary.”

How did you know that? You never know history stuff? Ben nodded along to Rob’s mini lesson, looking unsurprised. Just me?

“She’s got a tiny window to get back to Mexico before they pass the point of no return,” said Ben. “Not sure if she can stop it, but she’ll try.”

Olivia leaned back and stretched, turning from side to side as Ben talked. When Quarrel thought no one else was looking, she shot a disgruntled glare at the back of Ben’s head. Did he ever apologize for leaving Roach unprotected? Olivia averted her gaze before Quarrel could notice.

“So,” said Quarrel, tearing her eyes away from Ben. “We’ve also got a small window to bring her to justice.”

“She might not go back,” said Amanda. “The Aztec government kicked her out, remember? She’ll need something to show them before she even has a chance.”

“Talked with a friend. Was part of temple,” rasped Roach. “About demons.” He grimaced and sat forward, a hand moving to his throat as he spoke. “Once we knew more, demons became sacred. People sacrificed were taken to gods. Demons take the dead. Therefor, demons do gods’ work.”

“So she’s basically fuckin’ around with the messengers of the gods?” asked Rob.

“She’s committed sacrilege. She can’t go back,” said Miya. “But she’ll want revenge and power. She’ll stick around here.”

Roach nodded as he cleared his throat. He’s sitting upright more, I guess he’s feeling better. After the group processed this new information, with and no one chipping in more information, Amanda asked, “Ben, Olivia, did you find anything?”

Ben shook his head and said, “It was interestin’, not relevant. Ix was lookin’ at fuckin’ with Taauth’s mind, but unless you found somethin’ in that laptop that says otherwise, she didn’t go further. It was an interestin’ idea, I sent it on to Cyrus.”

“I didn’t find anything about that,” replied Amanda. “But I have found a couple people she’s been emailing. One was the owner of that taco restaurant.”

“Anyone else interesting?” asked Quarrel.

“Absolutely. There’s one woman who’s an executive at some local company. But the thing is, she owns the deed to that house we found, as well as two others. There’s about three or four other people like that. Some she was talking with before she got here.”

“So we got a list of targets,” summarized Ben.

Amanda nodded. “And that’s not all. I found a bunch more magical plan things. You can take a look if you want to, Miya, but they looked just as complicated to me.”

“No. It would just be a waste of time,” grumbled Miya.

“It wouldn’t hurt, would it?” asked Olivia. “You might figure something out. You don’t have to beat your head against it.” I think that’s the right saying. Right?

Miya gave Olivia a long, hard stare before her shoulders slumped. “Fine. I guess I’ll take a look at them.”

“Roach? Quarrel? What did you guys find?” asked Amanda.

“Not much we didn’t already know,” said Quarrel. “This Chinese girl can make fire out of anything that can burn. She regenerates incredibly quickly. The Chinese military facility nearly ran out of sedatives on her while testing her. But other than that, she’s a normal human, and so I guess is Taauth.” And Cyrus.

Rob leaned forward and added, “They kinda brainwashed her. Make her kill Siberians day in day out. When things were quiet on the border they planned on usin’ her on their own people. Dunno if they have or not, those documents are old fuckin’ things. She could be at the center of the earth now.”

“Cyrus seemed to think she was still around,” said Amanda. “If anyone can get her out of there, he can, and the sooner the better.”

“Yeah,” agreed Quarrel. “They didn’t… they didn’t hold back on her.”

Amanda nodded thoughtfully. “I’ll keep digging into her laptop. I’ll see if I can find anything for you, Miya, because it sounds like the rest of us have hit dead ends for the moment.”

Miya gave a weary nod.

“But I think that can wait until we get a proper night’s rest. Roach, how are you holding up?” asked Amanda.

Roach grunted. “Better. Not best.”

“We could all use some rest, than. Oh, and Quarrel, our little project could use some fine tuning.”

Quarrel cracked a smile. “I’ll get started right away.”

The group dispersed. Olivia tapped Rob on the shoulder with the back of her finger as he passed. “How did you know that stuff about Mexico?” she asked.

“What? I ain’t allowed to know things?” asked Rob with a grin.

“It’s not that. You just never say anything about, you know, history stuff.”

“My dad had a ton of history books about US military history. Me an’ my brothers read all that shit when we were kids.”

“Oh, OK.” An awkward pause filled the air. I should say something. Anything.

“I gotta get our armor fixed up,” said Rob, his grin having gone nowhere.

Olivia nodded wordlessly as he passed. Don’t mind me, I’m just being stupid. Everyone else had scattered, with equipment to check on and old wounds to bandage. She flexed her wings in the now empty living room. They don’t feel sore. I can still fly, that’s all I really need. Where is Ben?

Olivia found Ben hunched over his sniper rifle. “Hey. What’s up?” he asked without looking up. Part of the casing of the rifle near the trigger lay on the table beside him.

“Ben, have you apologized to Quarrel yet?”

He stopped and shot her a confused look. “For what?”

“You know, abandoning Roach?” Please tell me you didn’t forget that.

Ben shrugged and turned back to his rifle. “I didn’t do anythin’ wrong to her. I talked with Roach already, we’re good. As far as I see it I got nothin’ else to apologize for.”

“But you kind of did do something. You weren’t being mean or anything, but you left him there and they’re close. But you just messed up is all. She’s really not happy with you.”

“Hey, if she don’t wanna say somethin’ to my face, so far as I care we’re good.”

“Things may be good for you, but not for her. Just talk to her. That’s all I ask,” pleaded Olivia.

Ben sighed and massaged his forehead with his full hand. “Alright, alright. Let me just finish this up.”

“You’re not going to forget or something, are you?”

He laughed. “I ain’t gonna do that, don’t worry.”

“Bad news,” yelled Quarrel. “Ix has kidnapped more people.”

“I guess that talk will have to wait,” said Ben as he and Olivia followed the urgent sound of Quarrel’s voice downstairs. Quarrel had her phone in hand. “A friend in the MHU just told me,” she added as the other rushed in. “Three people were abducted, so we all know what that means.”

“Three?” rasped Roach, eyebrows arching upwards.

“She’s never taken that many before,” said Quarrel.

“Why would she need three people?” asked Olivia.

“She could be in a hurry, whatever she’s trying could need more people” replied Amanda. “No matter what, it’s a bad sign.”

“So what are we gonna do about it?” asked Ben, standing up and heading for the gun cases.

“Do the same thing we did last time,” said Rob. “Scan for demons with Miya, search the area when we get a hit.”

“They were just captured. We won’t find her with a demon until too late,” said Quarrel.

“We’ve got a list of possible places, remember?” pointed out Amanda.

“Fuck. Right.”

“I’ll map out where we need to go, than we’ll find those people. Any questions?” Amanda asked the group at large. After everyone shook their heads, she said, “Then let’s get ready. We’ll move out after sundown.”

<- Previous Chapter

Next Chapter ->

Rip Out my Beating Heart – Respite

Stupid, stupid, stupid. Why did I let him talk me into this? Olivia circled around the apartment building she’d just escaped from. A squad of soldiers scrambled for cover in the streets below, rifles aimed up at her. The sun, nearly set, shone in her eyes as she looped back around to track down Ben.

The adrenaline was not enough to deaden the ache in her back muscles where Ix’s soldier had managed to land shots. Her arm, from the skin to the bone, also ached where Ix had shoved sickly black tendrils of magic into it. A couple shots rang out, one going wide, the other tearing through the membrane of her wing. She hissed in pain, falling as her wing reflexively tucked back in.

She forced her wing back out and dove to build speed. Before another shot could hit her, she arced and put the apartment building between them. She managed to hear more gunshots from inside the building. Ben! The gunshots had come from below, on the second floor. He can get out from there. Then, shouting picked up from the corner of the building. The squad of soldiers had followed.

No! She twisted to the side, curving sharply back towards them. With wings tucked in, she dived towards the center of the group. A bullet struck her in the shoulder, the rest went wide. At the moment of contact, she spread her wings again and pulled back up, striking at anyone in range. Her foot smacked against the side of the lead soldier’s head, the claw on her hands grazed another’s ear. The rest fired into the air after her. Another pass and the soldiers had scattered into four groups, covering each other’s backs so she couldn’t strike at a group without diving into their crossfire. Pay attention to me, not Ben.

She harried them for a few minutes, faking dives and circling around, keeping them on their toes. They were pushed away from where Olivia had last heard the gunshots from inside the building, though she’d heard no others since. Hurry, Ben. Please be OK. Finally, she saw a familiar hooded figure leap out of a window on the second floor and immediately teleported to the ground.

He’s OK. He’s OK. Olivia made one final false dive at the soldiers to keep them occupied as Ben continued to teleport away. She followed, high in the air, once he was clear. The sun had fully set, little more than a receding glow on the horizon, just as sirens began to draw closer and closer.

“Olivia, are you alright?” asked Amanda over the comms. Everyone else had packed into the cars below Olivia.

“Yeah.”

“Good, we’re moving.”

Olivia coasted through the air, too high up to be seen from the ground by human eyes. She, however, could see Amanda’s car and Rob’s truck just fine. They drove, quickly but reasonably, though the streets of Phoenix, heading back to Quarrel’s house. Instead of a direct route, they drove in an arc, at one point circling to mark any following cars for Olivia.

Eventually, they got back without incident. The others staggered out of the cars, leaning on each other for support. Rob wrapped his arm around Amanda’s shoulders, and Ben jumped to the back of the truck to help Quarrel with the unconscious body of Roach. Olivia landed in the backyard so Quarrel’s neighbors wouldn’t wonder why a massive feral was in her house and slipped in when Ben opened the door for her.

She tackled him with a bear hug the moment she was inside. “Don’t ever do that again,” she mumbled into his shoulder. “I was worried.” Everyone is always shooting us and you can’t get shot like I can.

“Yeah,” he managed to croak. After a moment he added, “Can’t breathe.”

“Sorry,” she said, putting him back down and releasing him. She felt herself swaying on her feet as the adrenaline finally faded completely.

“How you holdin’ up?” He reached up for a cupboard in the kitchen, grabbing glasses for water. “Want a drink?”

“Yes please. And I’m OK. Just tired.”

He nodded, handing her water and taking another into the living room. The others had circled around the prone form of Roach on the floor. Miya, looking half dead, blinked a few times as she lay a hand on Roach’s wrist, eyes unfocused and distant. Quarrel’s head snapped up as Ben passed her the second glass of water. Olivia flinches slightly at the sight of anger in her eyes.

“What the hell was that back there?” demanded Quarrel. She stood and jabbed a finger at Ben’s chest as she took another steps forward towards him.

“What?” asked Ben, a small smile flickering across his face. He still held the water towards her.

“You left him completely alone, out cold, in an alley, when there were tons of hostiles around. How could that possibly have seemed like a good idea?”

“I watched him regrow a fuckin’ head once. I thought he just needed a breather an’ he’d be right back at ‘em. An’ this is for him,”

“Obviously this was different. It doesn’t take him any more than ten seconds to recover. How could you not notice?”

“Well I didn’t fuckin’ know that.” Ben placed the water next to Roach’s head, opposite Miya. “An’ I had other things to worry about. There were guys with guns tryin’ to kill me at the same time.”

Stop yelling. Stop fighting. “Is Roach OK?” asked Olivia, raising her voice as much as she dared to be heard.

“He’s not going to die, if that’s what you’re asking,” said Miya, speaking up for the first time. “He’s not in good shape, either. There’s some freaky magic acid running through his system. His body and power are fighting it off and flushing it out, but it’s going to take a while.”

“Thank you,” said Amanda, voice tight. “Is there anything we can do?”

“No. You guys can’t really do anything and I’m tapped out.”

“But he’ll be OK?” asked Quarrel, her anger subsided for the moment.

Miya nodded. “Yeah.”

“Hey, we’re gonna take a look at the mega crossbow downstairs,” said Rob. “Wanna take a look.”

“I’ll stay with him, if that’s OK?” She turned to Miya, who had stayed awake just long enough to stagger over and crash on Quarrel’s armchair, her tiny form nearly swallowed by the cushions. “Never mind.”

The group came to an unspoken agreement and broke up. Quarrel remained sitting by Roach, while Ben teleported off to where the guns had been set aside. Rob headed straight to his truck, while Olivia followed Amanda back into the kitchen. She winces whenever she starts moving.

“Are you OK, Amanda?” she asked. “Is your stomach alright?”

“It’ll be fine,” replied Amanda. She zipped open a small black bag she’d tucked away in a corner on the counter and began rummaging through. Small, hard objects rattled against plastic cases.

“I thought you were mostly done with those.”

“Not all of them. And one of these is a painkiller,” Amanda said, popping a trio of pills into her mouth.

Olivia wrapped an arm around her shoulder and gently squeezed. “Well, I hope you get better.” Together, they headed to the basement as the front door opened to let in Rob.

“How’d that fuckin’ mega crossbow work?” called out Ben from across the room.

“Beautifully,” said Amanda.

“Nothin’ like puttin’ half a pound of sharp steel through a wall,” added Rob, hauling the contraption in question inside on his back. “Hurt the fuck outta my shoulder, though.”

“I can take that if you want,” said Olivia.

“Sure.” Rob offloaded the crossbow with a grunt. Olivia hefted it. Unlike most of Quarrel’s other crossbows, this didn’t feel like it had any plastic. She may as well have been carrying a solid block of metal. In the basement, Amanda directed Olivia where to put it, and Rob began taking it apart. The two techies launched into a technical discussion, something to do with magnets, as Olivia found the large armchair Quarrel had been sleeping in. She nodded off as the chatter turned into a soothing drone in the back of her mind.

***

Olivia returned to consciousness under a fuzzy blanket. Oh, this is nice. She kept her eyes shut and tried to burrow further into the cushions. She tucked her tail in so it could share in the fuzziness. The only thing spoiling the moment was the ache in her arm. The old wounds that Clone had given her in the feral institute felt warm.

Before she had time to savor the moment, she heard a low voice across the room say, “Is she finally awake?”

“What?” Olivia mumbled, still unwilling to leave the couch.

“You just slept for sixteen hours, Olivia,” said Amanda from somewhere ahead of her.

“Oh, wow. That’s a long time. Did I miss anything?”

“You sleep for twelve hours normally. And no, you didn’t miss much. We all got some sleep.”

“OK.” Olivia relaxed under the blanket again, eyes still firmly shut.

She enjoyed the silence, broken only by the occasional tink of metal as Rob adjusted the screws of something. Or maybe it’s the nuts and bolts. I should ask him about all that stuff one day. Olivia could only hear Rob and Amanda in the basement. No Quarrel?

“How is Roach?” asked Olivia.

“He woke up and was talking a couple hours ago,” replied Amanda. “He’s still pretty rough, though. He passed out a little later.”

“He’ll be OK?”

“Yeah, Miya figured out what Ix did. You know magic, right?”

“A little,” replied Olivia, before realizing Amanda’s question might have been rhetorical.

“Then her explanation might make sense to you. All I got out of it was chain reaction.”

After a while, Olivia finally mustered up the energy to open her eyes and crawl out from under the blanket. Despite the midsummer Arizona heat, the air conditioned basement was refreshingly cool. She took a moment to stretch her wings before heading upstairs to check on the others. Roach was awake when she reached the living room, Quarrel right beside him. From the dark rings under her eyes, she hadn’t slept much, if at all. Roach’s normally taciturn face looked exasperated as Quarrel lectured..

“It’s fine. Not dead,” Roach rasped to her as Olivia lumbered up.

“I know. You just need to start taking better care of yourself.”

“I’ll heal.”

“Do you hear yourself? Literally? Can you hear yourself? That knife wound never healed properly. Just listening to you is painful.”

“Not dead though,” he said, a teasing smile creeping across his face.

Quarrel didn’t smile. She gave him a light punch to the shoulder and said, “That’s not the bar you want to set!”

“Hi, Roach!” said Olivia.

His smile didn’t vanish. “Hey.”

“Are you feeling better?” she asked.

“Fine now,” he rasped. “Just need rest.”

“Do your scars ache?” she asked. Ix knocked him out, right?

He shot her a questioning look. “My chest. Why?”

“My arms do too. I think she tried the same thing on me, but Ben stopped her.”

“Lucky. It hurt.”

Quarrel grumbled wordlessly, a dark look on her face, and turned as Amanda and Rob joined Olivia.

“Ben, Miya! Got something for you!” shouted Rob to the house.

Once they’d all gathered around, Amanda produced a thick, tattered binder, with thick red tape at the corners. Olivia folded her arms near the back of the room. Miya was looking much more alert, no longer about to fall asleep at a moment’s notice.

“We grabbed a bunch of documents in Ix’s quarters” said Amanda. “I also stole her computer.”

“Oh, so she’s fucked? Back at square one?” said Ben.

“If she’s not a moron she has backups somewhere,” explained Amanda. She pulled a stack of papers out of the folder. “I gave these a quick look over to see what we had, but we don’t have a lot of time so I wanted to get as many eyes on this as possible. This is a research paper, ‘The Effects of Magic on the Human Experience of Dreams’. I don’t know what kind of scientific paper publishes hippie bullshit, but whatever, it’s magic. It’s by some guy named Jonathan Gizenga.”

She slapped the papers down on the coffee table in the middle of the group. Two columns of densely packed text covered the first page. Amanda pulled out another stack of papers, this one about an inch thick.

“There’s also a ton of papers written in some Asian language. I can’t tell if it’s Chinese or Japanese or what. There’s notes in Nahua in the margins, which I also can’t read.”

That stack also fell onto the table. Roach and Ben both leaned in.

“This mean she can read whatever this is?” asked Ben.

Amanda shrugged. “It seems that way.”

“It’s Chinese,” rasped Roach. He lay a thick finger on one of the handwritten note in the margins. “Beijing.” On to another. “PLA.”

Olivia leaned over to Rob next to her and whispered. “PLA?”

“People’s Liberation Army. Chinese army.”

Olivia returned her attention to Amanda just as she emptied the folder and said, “The last thing is some super technical magic thing. I have no idea what it’s saying. Miya, Olivia, this one is all on you.”

“You really can’t figure it out, genius girl?” groaned Miya. “I don’t know all magic.”

“No, I mean it’s almost all drawings. I’m guessing they’re magic streams, but that’s all I’ve got.”

Amanda passed the papers over to Miya, who grumbled wordlessly. Miya’s eyes widened. “Whoa, OK. This is… something.”

“What?” asked Rob.

“I don’t know. It’s definitely something.”

“Very descriptive,” said Ben.

“Fuck off. I’d like to see you figure this out, smart ass.” Miya sighed and grabbed the document, settling back in the corner of the couch and beginning to read.

Roach looked up from the paper covered in strange characters Olivia had never seen before. “Not about magic.”

“No?”

“A weapon. A super.”

“Hang on.” Amanda disappeared down to the basement, returning a moment later with her helmet and a laptop. “I have a translator. I’ve got it set to Chinese.”

She turned on her laptop and aimed the helmet at the paper. A first person view from the helmet showed up on screen. After a moment, text in English began overlaying itself on the Chinese characters.

Before Olivia could make any observations, Amanda said, “Whoa, 1967? This is an old, classified document. How did she get this?”

“Alright, I’ll scan these and get a couple English copies for us. Quarrel, where’s your printer?”

As they got everything settled, Olivia leaned back and read everything she could on the screen. Whoever had written this paper seemed to be referring to a younger girl as a weapon. The language was cold and distant, with no name given. Where is she now?

“So she was looking into dreams and a Chinese weapon,” Quarrel summarized.

“She’s researching how to sever a soul from a body,” piped up Miya. “I think.”

“Not just a standard person. The Chinese experimented with their girl,” said Rob.

“Come at the king it’s best not to miss. She wants to be as sure as possible on Taauth,” said Ben.

“And I doubt Cuauhtemoc was ever going to subject himself to organ removal,” said Quarrel, horror creeping onto her face as she read.

“Wait, ‘was?’ Past tense?” asked Olivia.

“What? Did you not hear?” When Olivia shook her head, Ben added, “Cuauhtemoc is dead. Taauth killed him while we were fighting Ix.”

Wasn’t he supposed to be immortal? And Taauth just killed him?

“That’s some dangerous shit she’s playing with,” said Miya to herself.

“What?”

“OK, OK,” said Amanda, raising her voice to be heard over everyone. “We’re jumping around. We’ll will never get anything done like this. Let’s get organized. We have a magic research paper about dreams. Olivia, Ben, you two are on that.”

She passed the first, thin document in Olivia’s direction.

“We know the Chinese have an immortal woman they’ve been using as a weapon. Quarrel, Rob, and Roach will go through everything in this Chinese stack and see how it’s relevant.”

She nodded to the laptop and helmet setup, with the thick stack of papers in front of Roach.

“Miya is on those magic schematic things. I’ll crack open Ix’s laptop. If you find something absolutely earthshaking in importance, let everyone know. If not, just note it and keep working. In two hours let’s bring it all together. Any complaints? No? Let’s get started.”

<- Previous Chapter

Next Chapter ->

Rip Out my Beating Heart – Warrior

Skulker’s eyes focused on the darkening sky above him, framed all around by the smoking and jagged edges of a roof. Acid burned his nostrils. Movement at the rim of the roof caught his eye. Ix strode forward with fire in her eyes, one of her soldiers close behind. Skulker chuckled through the pain, trying to muster the strength to move. His body responded sluggishly. That could have gone better. Fuck. The soldier took aim.

Something big moved in the way, blocking his vision, just as the shots rang out. Olivia crouched over him, hissing in pain. Not dead yet, bitches! Skulker rolled over, his shoulder screaming in agony. A small chunk of the roof covering one of his legs fell to the floor with a dull thud. Olivia picked him up the rest of the way.

“Thanks!” he gasped just before he teleported to under where Ix and the soldier stood. The gutted kitchen of the abandoned apartment they found themselves in offered no protection otherwise. “Move!”

Skulker led the charge through a broken door, Olivia’s clawed feet scrambling on the tiled floor as she followed. Dead wood clattered on the ground behind them as Ix’s golem dropped down and gave chase. They found themselves in a darkened hallway, doors lining either side. Skulker spotted a dull green Exit sign and rushed off to the side. Keep up, Olivia.

A few more rifle shots hit Olivia in the back as Skulker teleported to the end of the hallway. Skulker aimed his pistol back towards Olivia.

“Down!”

Olivia took the hint and ducked to the side, giving Skulker a clear line of sight to fire off a few more shots. The soldier pulled back into the doorway, one of Skulker’s shots taking out a chunk of the old wooden frame an inch from his chest.

“Here,” shouted Olivia, finally caught up to Skulker. She threw her weight against another door to a staircase, shattering it completely into four separate pieces. Skulker ushered her in first, pulling out a grenade from his belt. Just as the golem and soldier poked their heads around their corners again, Skulker yanked the metal pin out and lobbed the grenade. Rather than sticking around, he rushed after Olivia, teleporting to just behind her back.

They were only halfway down to the next level when the grenade exploded, setting loose clouds of grey dust all around them. Olivia’s clawed feet kept slipping on the edges of the stairs, nearly sending her tumbling down before she managed to catch herself.

“Here,” barked Skulker as they approached the next floor. Olivia took the cue and launched herself through the heavy door. “Techies, how we lookin’?”

A moment later, the comms crackled and Delta’s voice came through. “Quarrel’s with Roach. Me and Gears are almost done.”

“Roach still down?” Skulker asked as he ran. Shit, I thought he’d have healed by now. He and Olivia took off down the hallway

“Yes. Where’s Ix?”

“Right behind us. Gotta go.”

Olivia lumbered ahead, hunched over and wings tucked in close in the tight space of the hallway. As they reached the end, Skulker spun and threw himself at one of the doors. It burst open, the old wood giving way as the impact sent a lance of pain through his shoulder. Oliva stumbled after him, missing the top of the doorframe with her head by an inch. Her wings brushed against the scattered and torn furniture. Skulker spotted blood seeping from wounds on her back.  She needs to get in the air. She can’t get shot much more.

“Get out of here,” he said, pulling Olivia towards the window.

“What? No,” she said, staring at him in shock. Behind them, he heard the clattering of dead wood and the pounding of two sets of boots.

“No.”

“No time. Less arguin’, more movin’.”

“But…”

“I’ll keep them busy, you’re cramped an’ slow in here.” She hesitated, one hand on the window, looking back at him. “Now.”

As Olivia finally disappeared through the window, Skulker turned back towards the approaching sounds of Ix and her companions. He exited the apartment just as Ix and her golem reached the opposite end of the hallway where he’d come from. Hi! Skulker fired off a few more shots as he backed away. The golem simply surged forward, placing the bulk of its amorphous body in front of Ix and absorbing the bullets. Skulker spun and teleported to yet another staircase at the end of the hallway.

He scrambled down the stairs, as fast as his feet and powers would carry him. Two more stories down, he headed back into the building proper, only to find Ix’s remaining soldier waiting, rifle at the ready. Fuck, he headed straight down. Skulker leapt across the hallway and tucked himself in a doorframe as best he could as the soldier opened fire. He fired back until his gun clicked empty again.

Bullets flew past as he reloaded. Why this floor? I just picked this one at random. His eyes strayed back to the stairs he’d come from. Ix will catch up soon, got to move. The moment he heard a break in the gunfire, he jumped out of cover and teleported, just in case it was a feint on the soldier’s part. An open door caught his eye. Cool. Another teleport brought him into the apartment and out of immediate harm’s way.

This apartment appeared lived in. Several military issue cots lay scattered around the room, with packs beneath them and thin blankets scattered on top. Curtains waved ever so slightly by an opened window. Quick exit. A TV was set up on an old wire spool about three feet off the ground, its screen flickering with Taauth’s and Cuauhtemoc’s meeting. He tuned it out and turned back to the front door, preparing his last flashbang. Stun her, kill her, get this over with.

He poked his head out as far as he dared and listened. Ix, her soldier, and her golem closed in. With the pull of a metal pin, he tossed the flashbang out and ducked back, covering his head. He only heard a hiss, rather than an explosion. He turned back around to find a small puff of smoke leaked out of the flashbang. Ix glowered at him, now only a few feet away and advancing. Fuck. He backpedaled back into the apartment, pistol in hand.

The golem led the charge through the door, taking the first of Skulker’s reactionary shots. Great fucking plan, me. Black acid arced through the ceiling towards him, debris raining down in its path.  He ducked his head as a particularly large chunk fell a few inches in front of him.

Screaming came out through the TV, loud enough to cut through the sounds of fighting. Skulker, Ix, and the soldier all hesitated. That doesn’t sound like diplomacy. They met eyes, and came to an unspoken truce. They want to know too.  Keeping an eye on each other, they both maneuvered to where they could both see the TV screen and each other. Skulker made sure the window was no more than ten feet away, to his right. The soldier, rifle still raised, squared his shoulders facing him. Ix and her golem simply froze, transfixed.

A bright flash filled the screen, and the camera shook violently. It focused just in time to see a massive boulder the size of a schoolbus rise from the earth. Skulker caught the smallest glimpse of a person standing atop of it. There’s Cuauhtémoc. Most of the sound had cut out, whatever microphones had been set up for the meeting were too far from the action or simply destroyed, but even so an evil laugh seemed to fill Skulker’s ears. Another, smaller figure also took to the air on its own.

In the sky, a storm of obsidian filled the air around what Skulker assumed to be Taauth. The maelstrom closed in closer and closer. Then the shards stopped, like they’d hit molasses instead of air. A white beam lanced out from Taauth’s hand. Cuauhtemoc ducked underneath just in time. The lance struck another boulder he held in the air, turning half of it to dust. Magic can do that?  The camera shook again, waving around so that Skulker and Ix couldn’t see what was going on

Ben took the time to take stock of his surroundings. He checked on the open window, and his unobstructed path to it. I’m on the second floor, a teleport should keep me from breaking my legs. Ix also cast a sidelong glance at him, her hand clenching to a fist. The other soldier kept a tight grip on his rifle.

The camera steadied again. Cuauhtemoc and Taauth were higher in the air now, harder to see through the swirling mass of stones. Then, one broke from the whirlwind. It cracked and twisted, in complete defiance of logic, at a fixed point in the air. It spread rough wings as four legs jutted out from beneath it. The new, massive winged lion let out an ear shattering roar that nearly blew out the speakers of the TV. It flapped its wings and flung itself in front of a boulder flung at Taauth, shattering it as it passed through, looking unscathed. Another boulder froze and began shaking and twisting. Cuauhtemoc hurled himself forward, along with eight more boulders arrayed behind him in an arrowhead formation.

A black bubble formed around Taauth. Cuauhtemoc’s lead boulder crashed into it and disintegrated. He caught his fall with another, decent sized boulder as his arrowhead hammered and battered away at the orb, seemingly making no impact. Obsidian chunks began raining down near the onlookers. A third boulder began warping. The two combatants were very high in the sky.

The boulders seemed to slow, as Cuauhtemoc brought himself in front of Taauth’s bubble. The camera zoomed in, enough for Skulker to make out his arms raised to either side. He seemed to be shouting a challenge to Taauth, face red as his mouth moved. His stone drew closer and closer to the bubble.

In a flash, faster than Skulker’s eyes could track, the bubble disappeared and a flash of golden light shot from Taauth to the center of Cuauhtemoc’s chest.

Cuauhtemoc, five hundred year old emperor, savior, and protector of the Aztec empire, fell. The room fell dead silent, as the massive rocks and boulders tumbled to the earth, along with the much smaller form of a man. He’s going to get up, right? He always does. Everything stayed dead silent. No figure rose from the mass of obsidian shards. Skulker shot another glance at Ix. She and her soldier started, simply waiting. The rocks didn’t move, didn’t show any sign of external control, beyond the three winged lions still circling in the sky.

I’ve seen all I need. Skulker, slowly at first, headed towards the window. Ix and the soldier were slow to respond, eyes still fixed, disbelieving, on the screen as he teleported straight for the opened window. He leapt, tucked into a ball, and hoped he wouldn’t catch his foot or arm on the wall. As a belated shot rang out behind him, he bounced off of the window frame and found himself outside, three stories up, in the air. He teleported straight down before he could build up too much downward momentum and landed in a roll on the street below.

He sprinted, back to their original meeting point. He spotted Olivia circling above in his peripherals. The others were already back in the cars, engines idling. Quarrel cradled Roach in the back of the truck, his veins still dark, though not as jet black as they had been when Ix had first arrived in the taco shack. She had her goggles up on her forehead, and her eyes narrowed at Skulker as he teleported to Amanda’s car.

“Was it worth it?” asked Skulker, between heaving breaths. He checked over his shoulder at the still empty streets as her climbed in the car. Sirens wailed in the distance, growing closer and closer.

“I think so,” replied Amanda. “Get in, we’re getting out of here.” As she put the car in gear, helmet to her side, she looked back at him and asked, “What’s wrong?”

“I think Taauth just killed Cuauhtemoc.”

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