6: Delta

“Hey, Delta, bosses want to see us,” Nomad called through the doorway into Delta’s workshop.

Amanda, Delta to those who didn’t know her well, grunted in response, eyes fixed on the delicate circuit board in front of her. The towering pile of equipment in need of fixing from the MHU alone would take at least a month to get through. The paperwork and requisition forms necessary would take another month, not to mention an entire day devoted to a meeting in which Marcus would grill her for not working fast enough to replace the three other non-powered engineers he’d seen fit to fire after hiring her. I should have gone corporate, or independent, she thought.

There were four different computers set up around her chaotic workshop. One was dismantled, its guts strewn about on a desk, gathering dust. Various tools, most of them custom made, covered the workbench Amanda hunched over. A bright lamp clamped to a bucket on her desk, and the only source of light in the room, lit up her work. A whiff of smoke drifted into the air as she tapped solder against the heated iron on the circuit board.

After a moment, with Amanda not making a move to get up, Nomad said, “Come on, Cyrus has got something for us. Something about a feral in the city.”

She sighed. Nomad was the fifth person this week to expect her to drop whatever it was she was doing and fix whatever problem they had. The graveyard shift hadn’t spared her from coworkers, and Cyrus had seen through her proposed security field that would zap anyone who walked in uninvited.

“Fine, just give me a minute. What do they need me for with a feral?” she asked.

“I don’t know. Apparently this one is weird. Skulker reported it an hour ago. Cyrus and Marcus are with a witness right now.”

She put the circuit board down. “Lead on,” she said as she got up. As they walked through the halls of the local Meta-Human Unit headquarters, she asked, “Skulker, that vigilante with the smiley mask? Crippled three of Sanchez’s men up north last week?” Nomad nodded silently. “He didn’t just shoot the feral?”

Nomad looked to be about Amanda’s age and twice her size, in his very early twenties and fresh out of the Academy. The swishes of his standard issue Meta-Human Unit fatigues echoed off the heavy concrete walls surrounding them. As they walked, Amanda wracked her brain for his real name. Bob? Jeremiah? No. Chris, that’s it. He’s the other new guy with powers. She had to crane her neck up to look at him.

“Yeah. I’m not quite sure what the story is. Cyrus called me up and told me to get you. You know as much as I do now,” Nomad responded. He sighed, “Everyone is already hunting for Sanchez, we don’t need a feral on top of this.”

“No kidding. Marcus had me working all week on crowd recognition software stuff.”

They crossed the building and walked up to one of the conference rooms. The room was like the rest of the headquarters, heavily fortified and utilitarian in the extreme. Amanda had grown to hate the sight of drab off white. The omnipresent roar of the AC cut out completely when Amanda and Nomad closed the door behind them. Sitting around the long table were Marcus and Cyrus. A woman who looked to be a civilian was sitting at the table, observing the argument Skulker and Marcus were having as Nomad and Delta walked in.

Marcus wore the same uniform as Nomad, grey camo pants and shirt made out of tough fabric. The second in command of the MHU leaned forward in his chair, visibly agitated. “…it’s just ridiculous. How could we have not heard anything about this until just now? You are obviously mistaken,” Marcus said, gesturing to the tired woman in her early forties with somewhat smeared makeup at the head of the table.

“I know what I saw,” the woman shot back.

“Both of you, please,” Cyrus broke in before either either could say anything more, his Persian accent faint. Cyrus was only of average height and build, which didn’t quite fit his reputation amongst the average citizen. He had a magnificent black beard, and a helmet that covered the top half of his face, but left his vision unimpaired. He wore the light armor the secret service had let him keep. Despite the fact that Marcus was the most powerful mage in Colorado and quick to let anyone know it, he seemed to occupy the whole room with quiet confidence. Cyrus paused to make sure he’d been obeyed before continuing. “Delta, Nomad. Thank you for joining us. Now,” He gestured to the woman, “Please, tell us your story. From the beginning, short and sweet version.”

“OK. So I was walking back to my hotel after visiting some friends. We’d gone to a bar and probably stayed out later than we should have. I mean, it had been forever since we’d seen each other and I’m from out of town and…”

Cyrus cut her off. “Focus, please. We need relevant details.”

“OK, sorry. I was alone, walking back since I wanted some fresh air and I was probably a little drunk, and these three guys came out and surrounded me. I screamed for help and punched one a couple times, but then one of them came at me with a knife. He had it up to my throat when the girl with wings ran up and yelled out at them.”

Marcus snorted, “Yes, some feral just talked in a complete sentence. It was probably a shifter or something.”

“Marcus,” said Cyrus warningly, “let her finish.”

“Anyways,” she continued with a glare at Marcus, who glared right back, “We were all standing there when I noticed she had claws on her hands. Then she started hissing and looked like she was about to attack or something. The guys ran off.” Amanda frowned, taking a moment to parse the woman’s somewhat scattered story. So she made a bad decision, was about to be mugged, and a thing with clawed hands scared the would-be muggers off. She says it’s a feral, but that’s like saying a lion ran a daycare.

“Why didn’t you? You should know that ferals are dangerous.” interjected Nomad.

“I was kind of in shock,” she replied. “She hadn’t stopped hissing when the men left. I thought I was a goner when she just stopped and asked if I was OK. I told her I was, then she ran after the men. I left and called the police as soon as I could.”

“What did it say?”

“Leave her alone.”

“Describe the feral for us again,” said Cyrus.

“Alright. She had a normal woman’s body, but, like, super tall. Over six feet, easily. Her hands and feet were reptilian, and the fingers and toes ended in claws. She had a tail and wings, and all of this was with dark green scales. She had silver snake eyes, and her teeth were all sharp, like a shark’s. She was dressed in some bulky old clothes. That’s it.”

“Could it have been a shapeshifter instead?” asked Marcus. That’s a good point.

The woman considered for a moment. “I suppose,” she hedged. “But shapeshifters don’t look all warped and stuff, right? Her hands and feet were way too big.”

“The alternative is a feral, a mindless animal, wore clothing, spoke to you, then just left you alone,” challenged Marcus.

“Enough,” said Cyrus firmly before the woman had a chance to respond. He turned to her and said, “Thank you for your cooperation. Marcus here will escort you to the police department, so you can identify your attackers, provide a statement, and so forth. Marcus?” He looked at Marcus expectantly. He grudgingly rose from his seat, and didn’t bother to hold the door open for the woman following behind him.

Delta mused on the new information for a moment, as did everyone else. Hmm. This is new. Ferals are just half human half animal things with fucked up heads that kill people. This is probably some new kid with a power, but Cyrus seems to believe it’s a feral. Weird. When the door closed behind the woman and Marcus, Cyrus turned to Nomad and Delta.

Delta spoke up, “Has something like this ever happened before?”

“Yes,” responded Cyrus, “Two or three times. That’s why the two of you are going to track her down.”

What? Just the two of us?

Ahead of any questions they could voice, Cyrus raised a placating hand and said, “If she is a shapeshifter, we’ll bring her in for a stern talking to. But if she is a feral, and it sounds like she is, we have a potential bomb ready to go off. I know this a big if. But there have been no attacks. Yet. We don’t want to provoke her into attacks. You will find her and give us a preliminary assessment of her mental situation, if she can be reasoned with or if she is just another feral. If she is feral, us and animal control go in. If not, perhaps we can negotiate peacefully. Questions?”

“Why us?” asked Delta immediately. Nomad nodded.

“You because your power lends itself to information gathering. I would be shocked if she hasn’t shown up on a security camera somewhere.” A small smile tugged at the corners of his lips. “And I believe you’ve been looking to get out of your workshop, yes? You told Marcus as much in more colorful terms, If what I’m lead to believe is true.”

Delta bit her lip. I knew that little outburst was going to come back to bite me in the ass. Cyrus turned to Nomad.

“Nomad, you’ve gotten situated with your squad, now it’s time for you to take a leadership role. That, and I believe the average feral would be completely unable to harm you.” Nomad nodded hesitantly. “Now don’t get me wrong, we are taking every precaution in this matter. Warning civilians, telling the police and our patrols to be alert, and the rest. The instant we believe she poses a threat, animal control subdues her. But if I’m right about this, we could have chance of avoiding violence. Now, I believe you two have some work ahead of you. Nomad, you’re in charge. If you need backup, your squad is on standby.”

Finding it shouldn’t be too hard. If I can’t outsmart a feral, I don’t deserve to be here. I’m not sure how we’re supposed to reason with it after, though.

Cyrus added, “Oh yes, a word of warning. You’ll get a more complete briefing with the rest of the unit later but we’re starting to believe that Sanchez is getting outside help. Be careful out there.”

They filed out and parted ways with Cyrus. “Want to head back to your workshop? That would make a good place to set things up,” said Nomad.

She stiffened at the thought of someone else in her workshop for extended periods of time. “What makes you say that?”

“You’re the only one there, and you’re only using about half the space. From what I hear you’re kind of a hermit,” he said, casting her a wary look.

I wouldn’t have to lug shit around if we set up there. “Fine.” She led the way back.

“You’re a techie, right?” asked Nomad as he sat, scratching at the skin under the deep blue bandana around his neck.

Delta sighed. She hated her job. There were few more condescending words for a super powered engineer or scientist than techie. There were other, better names for engineers, but the term techie was ingrained in the American public’s, and therefore most unlearned American super’s, psyche. “I specialize in electricity and electronics.” It was vastly more complicated than that, but that’s what the end result was, and explaining it further would be wasted breath. “You have something to do with water?” she trailed off, leaving the question hanging in the air.

“More or less. I turn into a blue liquid. It’s not water though. I’m completely in control, can change my shape, and can snap back to normal at will.”

She nodded. “So the feral will basically be trying to beat up a pool of water when this goes bad.”

“Pretty much.” He leaned back. “Do you have any thoughts?”

Delta smiled. “A few.”

***

The hunt started well enough. Amanda had programs sifting through security feeds and logs from the nearby stores and buildings in a roughly five block radius from where the feral had been spotted. It didn’t take long to find footage from an ATM camera from over a week ago. It was the potential feral, matching the woman’s description, wrapped in some sort of bed sheet. It’s been around for a while. It’s actively looked for clothes since then, the woman would have said if it was wearing a bedsheet. I can’t think of why a shapeshifte would wear that, either. She sent the picture to the newspapers and continued her work.

Amanda and Nomad didn’t see much of each other the first day. While Amanda handled the technical aspects, Nomad attempted to make contact with Skulker, to see if the vigilante had anything else to add. Unfortunately, like most vigilantes, he’d proven difficult for anyone to find. The two living men he’d hospitalized had at least corroborated the woman’s description of the feral, though Nomad told Delta he figured the glowing eyes were an embellishment on their part. Must be nice to be independent. You just dump criminals on the government’s doorstep and let us do the paperwork.

Two days after Cyrus had first called them in, they strolled into the workshop at the beginning of their shift to reconvene. A single, lonely fluorescent light high up on the ceiling struggled to keep the room lit. The map of the city they had pinned to a corkboard had been shoved into the corner, with a series of shrinking concentric circles corresponding to the feral sightings.

“What time did you go home last night?” asked Nomad. “Jeremiah said he saw you leave, but he’s on in the afternoon.”

That’s a change of pace. She followed his gaze to her desk, strewn with empty instant noodle bowls. Nomad was thankfully quiet, reserved, and not too imposing when Delta worked on something. He’d never asked her about anything outside of their jobs before.

“Two in the afternoon.” She slammed back the entire cup of coffee she held, embracing the caffeine and ignoring the heat.

“You’re operating on five hours of sleep right now,” he stated, eyebrow raised.

“I’m fine. I do this all the time.” She took her seat and booted up a laptop.

He nodded slowly. “Sure. Are you going to be up to catching a feral?”

“I’ve got all my gear ready. Although,” she said, trailing off as a thought occurred to her.

“What?”

“It’s reptilian. It could be cold blooded,” she said. Seeing his curious expression, she added, “I’ve got thermal sensors that let me see people through most walls.”

Nomad frowned, considering. “Don’t lizards and snakes sun themselves? They’re cold blooded. This feral is only running around at night.”

“Good point. I’m set.”

“No, your gear is set. Are you set?”

“I’m fine.”

He cast her a wary gaze, but said nothing more. He took a seat in an old, worn out office chair, forming a triangle with Amanda and the map.

“I got a collection of sources about ferals you asked for,” she said. “I just sent it to you.”

That had been a fascinating internet trawl. Just as supers had been around forever, so had ferals. But there were so few constants among ferals it was hard to verify anything about them. The only consistency was that they had to be based on Earth DNA. As for intelligence, the smartest feral recorded to date was named Steve, a large hairy serpent with eight legs. According to his IQ test he was only slightly behind the average person.

“Thanks. I’ll give it a look over once we’re done here,” he said. “I talked with a herpetologist, there aren’t enough defining features on the feral for him to give a good guess about its behavior. He did say it looked like the wings were vestigial. They’re too short for anything that big to fly. I think we have a good range to work with now.”

He gestured to their map, the smallest circle of which covered four blocks in the area where Skulker reported it.

“That’s where most of the sightings we’ve had, and there’s plenty of abandoned buildings in the area.. I think we’ve established that this is a feral. Food has been stolen and it’s scavenging clothes. And I think it does possess intelligence, especially since we’ve had so few sightings of it over two weeks. But it has to be sleeping somewhere.”

“Sure. I’ve got a tracking system all set up for it, and I just finished the modified taser for you,” said Amanda, passing him what seemed to be a normal taser. It wasn’t hard for Delta to modify them so that they knocked people unconscious without any risk to the heart. “These should knock it out. I pumped up the power a bit just to be safe.”

Just then, Nomad’s phone let out a chime. He frowned as he read. “Our feral popped up again. It stopped another mugging.”

“Another?” Amanda replied. I would have thought the first one was a fluke.

He nodded. “There are two witnesses. Bob is waiting with them at my desk.”

They gathered their things and hurried out. Down the hallway were the offices for the MHU officers offices. It was a large open room, with a dozen desks scattered around. Most were unoccupied, Sanchez keeping most of the unit busy. Most were covered in documents and keepsakes. Amanda spotted an ornately carved human skull painted vivid reds and blues with a tiny ethereal feathered serpent twisting through the empty eye sockets, being used as a paperweight. They quickly spotted their witnesses.

Compared to the others, Nomad’s desk was relatively austere, with only a small framed picture of him and another girl his age for decoration. Girlfriend? Doesn’t look like his sister. The two witnesses, a young couple looking around nervously, hung off to the side.

Bob, a somewhat rotund middle aged man sporting a massive, well groomed mustache, greeted them. “New Guy, New Girl,” he said, nodding to Nomad and Amanda in turn. Even speaking normally, his voice boomed, carrying throughout the space. “What took you so long?”

“We came as soon as you texted me,” replied Nomad.

“Huh. Cyrus said he was going to get you.”

“We never saw him,” replied Nomad. Bob sighed and massaged the bridge of his nose, grumbling under his breath. “Something wrong?”

“No, he’s just been forgetting stuff like that more and more lately. He called me some Persian name the other day. I’ll ask him about it later.”

Nomad nodded. He leaned in and asked, “How are the witnesses?”

“A bit shook up, otherwise they’re unharmed,” replied Bob, his voice pointlessly low. The young couple still noticed. “They’ve been talkative so far. They already gave their statements to the police.”

“Nothing strange?”

“Nope, they were out on a date, were in the wrong place at the wrong time, so far as I can tell.”

“Alright, thanks. Bob.”

“Sure thing.” Bob turned to the couple and said, “This is where I leave you. This is Nomad and Delta. They’re the ones looking into the feral you saw. They just have a couple questions for you, than you’re free to go.” With that, Bob sauntered off in the direction of the break room and its coffee machine.

The man, who looked to be in his mid twenties, cleared his throat and stepped forward towards them, managing a nervous smile.

“Hello,” said Nomad. “If you would, describe what happened for us. When did the feral first appear?”

The man spoke first, “We were being held at gunpoint. The guy was telling us to hand over our wallets. Then it swooped down and took him out.”

The woman Amanda assumed was his girlfriend chimed in, “It flew down hit the guy with the gun.”

“So the feral tackled the biggest threat. OK. And I’m sorry, did you say it flew?” asked Nomad. Amanda sighed. So much for them being vestigial.

“Yeah. And I wouldn’t say tackled,” clarified the man.

“Oh?” prompted Nomad.

“No. It kind of awkwardly ran into him. Its arms were kind of just out,” he said, holding a T pose for a moment with elbows half bent.

“Yeah, I didn’t notice it at the time, but looking back it was really strange,” added the woman.

“Not the only thing strange about this feral,” said Nomad. Should you be telling the public that? He continued, “So, the feral hit the man. They go to the ground. And?”

“It got up and roared.”

The woman nodded emphatically. “It was super loud. Like something out of a dinosaur movie.”

“That made the guys run off,” said the man. “Then it kind of just looked at us and flew away.”

“It flew away,” said Nomad, for clarification. Amanda leaned forward, eyes fixed on the man. Does it glide or really fly?

“Yes. It just jumped into the air and flapped its wings.” Fuck.

“So it didn’t actually talk at any point?” asked Nomad.

They both shook their heads. “No.”

“Why?” asked the guy. “Has it before?”

“Probably,” replied Amanda. “We’re trying to confirm.”

“Do you have anything to add? Any other weird behavior or anything like that?”

The man and woman exchanged glanced, then the man said, “No. I hope this helps.”

“Yes, absolutely. If that’s all?” said Nomad, shooting Amanda a look for confirmation. She nodded. “Thank you for your time. I’ll see you out.”

They reconvened in the workshop.

“Well that was something,” said Amanda, the moment Nomad walked through the door.

“That was a pattern, at least the start of one,” he replied.

“Could it understand right and wrong? Is that something ferals can do?”

“I don’t know. We’ll find out when we meet her. I’ll tell Cyrus that we will probably have something for him by tomorrow. You get started finding out which buildings in the area are unused.”

Advertisements

5: Vigilante

Olivia woke to a knock on her door. Late afternoon sunlight beamed in through her window as she cracked her eyes open. What? She rolled off of the couch and stretched her wings as she stood up fully. Wait, no one knows I’m here. Her heart rate spiked. She sniffed and caught a whiff of Benjamin’s scent. The pleasant donuts had faded, leaving behind only something metallic. It’s him. Another knock, this time louder, more insistent. The front door still had a dresser in front of it.  Frozen in place, she whipped her head towards the window in the room, the only other possible exit. Maybe he’ll move on.

“You know this is the only closed an’ locked door in this whole damn place, right?” he called out. “I know you’re in there.”

She flung herself against the old dresser against the door with a thud. Her clawed feet dug deep into the floor, bracing in case he tried to force the door open. No, no, no.

“Whoa, calm down, I ain’t lookin’ for a fight,” he called out again, in his fast, clipped way. “I damn near got fired for runnin’ after you this mornin’. Let’s chat.”

Olivia paused, not taking her weight from the door. He just wants to talk? That doesn’t sound so bad. Wait, he has a gun. “No,” she said, mustering as much force into her voice as she could.

“What was that? Can’t hear you.”

“No,” she repeated, raising her voice as high as she dared. “Go away.”

“What’s your name?” he asked.

The question caught her off guard. Why does he want to know? I guess that’s not too bad. “Olivia,” she called out.

“OK, Olivia, call me Ben, Skulker, whatever,” he yelled through the door. “You really just wanna keep shoutin’? Or do you wanna open the door so we can talk face to face?”

“No, I want you to go away,” she replied.

He muttered something under his breath, though the door muffled most of it. Then he said, “You know, most people you run into ain’t gonna be as friendly as me. An’ I don’t lie. You don’t got many options.” In the silence that followed, Olivia thought, I don’t know. No one else has ever talked to me before. Maybe I can find something out.

“How did you find me here?” she asked.

“You went straight fuckin’ here from the donut shop. Wasn’t hard,” he replied.

“But I was flying.”

“An’ I got workin’ eyes. Wasn’t expectin’ this though. Pale Man’s Palace, no wonder no one’s stumbled on you yet. Place is freaky.”

“What is the Pale Man’s Palace?” she asked.

“It’s what the place is called. Well, it’s really somethin’ else, but no one gives a shit about that anymore. Supposed to be haunted.”

Like, haunted by ghosts? Is that what that means? “Really?”

“You don’t find it weird no one’s looted this fuckin’ place? Pale Man’s just an urban legend, but people steer clear anyways.” I haven’t noticed anything. Ben continued in the silence that followed, “Olivia, I’ve put my gun away, an’ if this goes nowhere you never gotta see me again. If you open this door we can talk face to face.”

Olivia rested her hand against the wall beside her, weighing her options. I guess. I think he’s being honest. It sounds like he’s being honest. He hasn’t tried to force the door open or anything.

“Hang on.” She finally pulled herself from the door and dragged the dresser out of the way, its wooden feet rasping against the threadbare carpet. With a deep breath, she opened the door and poked her head out.

Ben’s head whipped up towards her, still grinning. Rather, the metal mask grinned, he could be cross eyed and slack jawed for all she knew. He leaned against the opposite side of the hall, arms folded across his chest. They considered each other for a few moments. True to his word, he didn’t have a weapon in hand, though it didn’t take her long to spot a holster at his hip.

“Damn you’re tall. Hi!” he said with a nod.

“Hello.” He nodded, should I nod? She added a hesitant, jerky nod after a brief moment.

The mask threw her off. Other than his wary, tense shoulders, she couldn’t tell his expression, if he was angry or happy or bored. Is he about to shoot? She glanced to the side. Closing the door would slow him down, and she could fling herself through the window and away from him. Ben’s dark hoodie and jeans stood in stark contrast to the white wall behind him, though without the mask he wouldn’t look out of place simply walking down the street. The massive rifle he’d carried on his back before was nowhere in sight.

“How you doin’?”

Olivia blinked. “I’m OK.” They started at each other for another moment. Should I say something? “What do you want?” she asked hesitantly.

“Right!” he said, pushing off the wall and standing upright. “I believe that a mutual exchange of info is in order. Keeps anyone from gettin’ shot or stabbed.”

She tilted her head to the side, not certain she’d heard him correctly. “I thought you said people were going to shoot me. Why aren’t you?”

“Cops. I said cops were gonna come after you. I think they try to catch ferals nowadays, not shoot ‘em. An’ besides, I coulda just shot you instead of knockin’. Or this mornin’. Or the day before. You get the point.”

No one else has ever talked to me before. I guess he’s right. “OK. But you stay there. I stay in here.”

“Fair enough.” He relaxed noticeably, his foot tapping to a rhythm only he heard. Olivia remained hidden behind the door, only her head and half a wing exposed. He spread his hands wide and said, “You look lost as fuck. What’s up?”

Olivia glanced down both ends of the hallway, just in case anyone else had snuck up on them, as well as to buy some time to gather her thoughts. The sun began to set, casting the hallway in a more orange glow.

“So, who am I exactly,” she said, stumbling over the words. She braced herself for a laugh, or a curse, but she wanted answers.

“Fuck if I know,” said Skulker, as if that statement were obvious. “Never seen you before in my life.” He held up a hand. “Wait, wait, hold on. If you don’t know who you are how do you know your name is Olivia?”

“Oh, um, I just picked it,” she mumbled.

“Just picked it,” he repeated. “Just Olivia? What a wasted opportunity. You coulda gotten creative with it! You coulda been Skullcrusher or somethin’.”

“But I don’t want to be called Skullcrusher,” she whispered.

Skulker either didn’t hear or didn’t care, as he said, “Man, that’s just sad. Last name coulda been somethin’ like Coldheart. Middle name? Any ideas?”

“Never mind. I meant what am I? What is a feral?”

He laughed and replied, “A feral is big scary mutant thing. You know how people get freaky powers an’ shit?”

Olivia nodded. “I guess.”

He continued, “Ferals get the same deal. But everythin’ gets fucked up when it happens. Human gets smashed together with whatever. Elephants or bugs or some shit. They don’t mesh too well, I think you’re figurin’ that out. I’ve never heard of a feral talkin’. Usually you lot just go on a killin’ rampage until someone puts a bullet in you.”

Human. I used to be human and normal. Her gaze dropped to the ground as she thought, Why me?

“So you first said you don’t know who you are, right?” he asked, breaking her train of thought.

“Yes,” she replied, not looking at him.

He nodded. “Maybe that’s somethin’ we can work on. You’re really fuckin’ weird, I bet if we kick over a few rocks in the right places we’ll probably find somethin’.”

Olivia nodded, struggling to keep up with the speed he talked at. Maybe we can find out who I am? Is that what he said? Can he do that?

“What do you remember?” he asked.

“Stuff. I know what a grape is, even though I don’t ever remember seeing one. But, like, remembering stuff with me in it? Only a few days now.”

His head leaned back slightly. “Damn. The bits with you. What do you got?”

“Oh, with me.” I woke up with nothing. “I didn’t have anything.”

“Might wanna be a little more specific,” he prodded.

“I was naked,” she mumbled, staring at the floor.

“No clothes? No jewelry?” he asked without missing a beat.

“No.”

“Anyone nearby?”

“No.”

He started at her for a moment. Did I say something wrong? “Are you fuckin’ with me?”

She flinched. “What? No.”

“That’s weird as fuck. Never heard of anythin’ like that. Anythin’ around you? Anythin’ at all? Anyone?”

She paused, wracking her memories for anything that might help. “No. I mean, it was raining. I was behind a dumpster. In that alleyway downstairs.”

“OK, that’s a start. Not sure where to go with that. Tell you what, I’ll give it some thought.”

“OK. And, um, I had another question.”

“Shoot.”

“What can superpowers do?” she asked.

“Anythin’, I think. I teleport. My brother makes cool techie shit. Within reason. You ain’t gonna find someone who can throw you into the sun, but if you’re thinkin’ small scale the sky’s the limit.”

She blinked. Did that make sense? “So maybe someone could change someone else? Like, physically?”

Skulker paused, staring at her for a moment as he leaned back. “I dunno,” he said, slower than normal. “Maybe. Somethin’ like that’d be super dangerous though. Super fuckin’ dangerous.”

“Oh, OK,” said Olivia in a small voice, trying not to show her disappointment.

“Hey, cheer up! At least you ain’t dead yet,” he said. “Now, my turn.” He arched his back, stretching, before he continued, “Those dudes you ran off two nights ago, why’d you do that?”

“Them?” she asked. What do they have to do with anything? “They were trying to hurt someone.”

“That all?” he asked.

Olivia frowned, “What else would there be?”

He chuckled. “Fair enough. They’re actually part of a larger problem I’m workin’ on. You see, they’ve got a boss, goes by Sanchez. Not sure of his real name. They’ve been doin’ some very bad things lately, as you’ve seen. You seem like you could be super helpful there.”

“I don’t know, I don’t think I could do that.”

“You don’t want them runnin’ around, doin’ whatever they want, do you?” he asked, sounding almost offended.

“No. But what are the police doing?”

“Cops have got lots of shit on their plate. They’re gettin’ overwhelmed. And concerned citizens like you an’ me have gotta be willin’ to step up when we need to, don’t you agree?”

“I guess.”

“Here is what I’m proposin’. I could use some help out there, an’ you need help with your memories or whatever. It’s not like you ain’t done what I’m askin’ you to do already, right?”

“I guess,” she replied again, doubt niggling in the back of her head. “But there’s a bunch of them, the guys with Sanchez, right?” she added, grasping for some reason to say no.

“You’ve already pissed ‘em off. You ain’t exactly subtle.”

“But what would we be doing.”

“Lead cops to evidence. That’s the short of it.”

That doesn’t sound bad. And he said he’ll help me. “OK,” she said,

He pushed off the wall and gave her a lazy salute. “Great! I’ll see you around here tomorrow. Oh, an’ I’d keep out of sight of any cops if I were you.”

4: Silver Eye

Olivia slammed the door to her apartment closed behind her and leaned her weight against it, heart pounding in her chest. He killed a guy. That masked man killed a guy. They weren’t even fighting any more. That guy was down and he just shot him and killed him. Why? Why? She took a deep, shaky breath. Her tail thrashed back and forth behind her, smacking against the door frame.

The quiet night seemed exactly the same as before. It didn’t seem to care she’d just seen someone killed in cold blood. She took a moment to press her ear to the door. The whole building was silent, save her panicked breathing. It’s OK. He didn’t follow me. There’s no one here but me. She stepped away from the door, hands shaking. It’s OK. I’m OK. A pleasant breeze picked up, whooshing past her open windows. She took a long look at the closed door to her apartment. Someone with a gun could just walk in here. The broken lock on the handle didn’t fill her with confidence.

She looked around for anything solid to put between her and the unsecured door. A collapsed dresser sat in a bedroom on the far end of the building. She hauled the dark wooden box over and shoved it against her door. The night remained quiet, save for the breeze outside. She paced, clawed hands uncurled and eyes fixed on the front door, until her feet began to ache. It’s been a while. He must not have followed me. She stopped and crashed on the couch.

The cheerful morning sun began its rise. Her eyelids grew heavier and heavier as the looming spectre of a grinning murderer faded. She spread her wings, wrapped her blankets around her shoulders, then tucked in her wings around over them. Her eyes never left the door until she finally fell asleep.

***

Olivia awoke to a constant tapping sound from outside. Her blanket went flying as she bolted upright. What is that? She sniffed the air, smelling no one. A light evening rain came down outside the window. OK. It’s just rain. That’s all. Just rain. She curled her fingers and paced, trying to work out the sudden spike of adrenaline. The rain washed away the gas fumes and people smell the city usually carried. He didn’t follow me back here last night.

The rain didn’t last too much longer. With little else to do after her tiny breakfast of water and another cinnamon bun, she paced back and forth. Six steps to one end of the living room, six steps to the other. Her nervous energy wore off, and the walls of her apartment seemed to grow closer and closer every minute. I can’t stay in here forever. She glanced outside. No one has tried to get in. It’s probably safe. But what if it isn’t?

She laid her hands on the the dresser aside and took a deep, calming breath. The hallway beyond sounded empty to her ears. She opened the door, poking her head out cautiously. Nothing but dust greeted her. See? I’m fine. She went up to the roof of her building to stretch her wings. Far to the south, she could still see lightning flash through the clouds. The distant thunder barely registered to her ears. She sat at the edge of the roof, clawed feet dangling beneath her, wings and tail stretched out behind her

The sun finally set as she thought, Why did that other guy show up and kill? Was I supposed to help that woman last night? I just wanted to help. She hung her head, unwilling to leave the relative safety of her building.

***

The next day found Olivia pacing once again. The tips of her extended wings scraped against the walls of her apartment. Her stomach grumbled. No more ifs. I need food. She headed to the roof of her building. The claw on her heel nearly caught on the stairs several times as she walked. She took a deep breath of fresh air once she reached the top. The city stretched out before her. Streetlights twinkled in all directions. With a few steps, she dropped off the edge of the roof and began flying.

A smile crept across her lips as the air rushed past her, whipping around her hair. Nothing up here but me. She looked up just in time to see a power line directly in her way. She tucked her wings in and dropped like a stone, passing just below black cables strung up between two weathered poles. OK. I still need to pay attention.

After flying around for a bit and scrounging old fatty ham scraps from behind a closed deli, she looked back up to the sky. I wonder if I can takeoff from the ground this time. She ran forward a few steps and leapt as high as she could. At the same time, she spread her wings and pumped them as hard as she could. She finally got the timing right, her wings pumping as she gained height and left the ground behind.

She coasted on towards the mountains. The buildings here grew shorter and shorter, though the occasional taller building still stuck out. She experimented with diving and rising while flying. This part of the city had less people, and less power lines.

Harsh voices caught her attention as she flew during a low point. She landed on a building. In a nearly empty parking lot, two men had a young couple cornered against their car. Not again. One of the attackers held up his arm. It took Olivia a moment to realize he held a gun, all harsh angles and dark grey metal. There was someone else there as well. A woman stood against a flickering streetlight, occasionally looking over her shoulder at the robbery in progress. She looked bored, with hooded eyes and a slouched posture. Why isn’t she doing anything?

She turned back to the robbery. He’s got a gun. He could hurt them. Her hands shook. She clenched them, trying to wrestle control back, the claws biting into her palms. It took a couple deep breaths before she regained her composure. I can’t just sit here. The guy with the gun isn’t looking at me. I have to get him first. But how? Maybe I can just tackle him. When I hit the ground the first night the concrete cracked. Maybe I can do that. With her decision made, she took flight.

She soared through the air, aiming for the man with the gun. Her body collided with his, the force of the impact shaking her. The man was flung off his feet, his pistol flying from his grasp. Shouting surrounded Olivia as she rolled to a stop, her claws digging into the asphalt of the parking lot. Blood rushing in her ears, she rushed to her feet and planted herself between the young couple and the two would be muggers. The man she’d bowled over scrambled to his feet, his look of shock mirroring his friend’s.

“Go away!” she roared.

The two men backed away slowly. There was no trace of the woman at the street corner. Once Olivia made no further move towards them, the two men took off at a dead sprint to where the woman had been. She watched until they rounded a corner and were out of sight before turning towards the young couple behind her. The moment she looked at them, they slowly backed away from her, eyes wide. The man fumbled with the car door handle behind him. What did I do? Olivia shrank back, hiding her clawed hands behind her back. Their fear seemed to fade once she had backed away about fifteen feet. Sorry. She spun around and took flight, her wing nearly giving from the ache of the impact.

It’s OK. No one got hurt. That’s good. She circled in the air a few times as the couple got into their car. Once it was clear they were on their way with no more trouble, she began coasting roughly in the direction of her apartment building. She stopped midway through the trip, letting her wings and back rest for a few moments on a rooftop. A bright light caught her eye.

The neon sign over the door read ‘Laundromat’. A woman and two men walked in and out with baskets full of clothes, clean and folded leaving, dirty and crumpled going in. So people can just wash their clothes there? Would they let me? She watched beyond the glass walls from across the street. The woman handed the teen behind the counter a strip of green. Money? That has to be money. Right? I just need money.

She took flight once the ache in her shoulder and the adrenaline had faded, heading back to her apartment. The scraps of food she’d picked up earlier weren’t settling in her stomach well, but it beat gnawing hunger. The few people she saw on the streets never bothered to look up. They also avoided the smaller, less lit side streets Olivia used whenever she was on the ground. I guess I should be glad they don’t. No one notices things there. Like the dirty ten dollar bill sitting on the curb down below her.

Wait, really? Awesome! She landed, scooped up the money, and took off again. Cool! Now what can I do with this? Maybe get clean clothes? Olivia’s nose caught a pleasant, familiar scent as she continued towards her building. Donuts! Food! Ten dollars is enough, right? There wouldn’t be many people around this early in the morning, but the donut place would just be opening about now. She’d nearly run into one of the workers yesterday.

She tilted, turning to the strip mall. I’m finally going to get real food! The area was quiet as she landed near the side of the row of dim shops. The neon red and blue Open sign flickered below a picture of a donut with a happy, smiling face in the hole. She froze, just a few feet away from the door.

What if there’s other people in there? They might freak out. There’s food in there, though. Not dumpster food. The sweet smell of sugar tickled her nostrils. It smells so good. Maybe I could buy a whole bunch of donuts with ten dollars. Hunger won out. She took a deep breath and opened the front door. Her head whipped up at the cheerful ring of a small bell above the door.

“Be with you in just a sec,” called out a voice from the back.

Donuts filled the glass displays up front, and a stack of newspapers lay next to the door. A few empty tables were scattered around the room. The scent of fresh bread and sugar filled the air, along with something else. Cinnamon! Olivia approached the donuts, the claws of her feet scraping against the freshly mopped floor tiles. They all look so good. The person who’d called out came through a set of double doors backwards, pulling a cartload of donuts. Olivia thought she smelled something else familiar, but before she could place it the man turned.

“What can I getcha’,” he began, trailing off at the sight of Olivia. His name tag read ‘Benjamin’. He wasn’t a big guy, but his wide smile wavered only for a moment, even as his eyes widened and he muttered, “You fuckin’ kiddin’ me?” under his breath. Something smelled off to Olivia, but she’d already come this far.

“Hi,” she said with a small, uncertain wave.

He started at her for a moment before replying, “Hey.” His eyes lingered on her large scaly hands.

“Um, could I have some donuts? Please?” she added, tucking her hands behind her back.

“What was that?” he asked as fast as possible. “Speak up.”

She cleared her throat and repeated, “Could I have some donuts please?”

“Sure. How many?” His grin never faded, though she thought she spotted tension in his shoulders. Sorry.

Olivia looked up at the menu above them. A dozen is under ten dollars. “A dozen?” Is that how I’m supposed to order? I just have to say that?

“I can do that. Anythin’ in particular?” he replied. He pulled out a cardboard box, watching her expectantly.

She paused a moment, struggling to parse his hastily spoken words. “I don’t know. They all look good. Um,” She looked back up at the menu, then down at the displayed donuts several times.

“I can just pick out a dozen for you.”

“OK. Oh, cinnamon. Can I have any with cinnamon?” she asked.

“Sure, why not?” he said with a chuckle.

As Benjamin started grabbing assorted donuts, the whole conversation struck Olivia as terribly awkward. It was also the longest conversation with another person she could remember. At least he didn’t stare at her too much. She sniffed the air, finally returning to that familiar smell.

She finally realized the scent came from Benjamin. She recognized it. Blood, chemicals, metal, and the nearly, but not quite, overwhelming scent of donuts. Suddenly his now familiar wide smile seemed less jovial and more sinister. Her tail swished in agitation, and she backed away from the counter with wide eyes.

His smile widened the next time he looked back up at her. “Somethin’ wrong?” he asked. “Is this fever dream I’m havin’ about to get real dark?”

“You’re him,” she whispered.

“Gonna have to be a little more specific than that,” said Benjamin, grabbing two more random donuts without taking his eyes off of her.

“You shot that guy.” Her voice picked up

“That so?”

“You’re him. You look like him and you smell like him.”

“Smell?” She gave a small nod, taking another step back. “Huh. You know you’re in the news, right?”

His question caught her off guard. She blinked, frozen halfway between steps. What?

“You can go look at a newspaper by the door. They’re free.” He gestured towards the door, still speaking quickly. “Front page.”

She backed away, never taking her eyes of him, until she leaned over and picked up a newspaper. The front page had the title Feral Sighted in Westward City, along with a grainy picture of her in that stupid bed sheet she’d worn that second night.

“Feral?”

“What?” Benjamin finished packing her donuts, closing the box and setting it on the counter next to the register.

“Feral?” she repeated. “What’s a feral?”

“What?” As she opened her mouth to repeat herself for a third time, he added, “No, no, I heard you. You don’t know what a feral is?”

“No.”

“It’s a you. Kinda. Most are too dumb to talk. Cops and animal control are huntin’ for you now.”

Hunting? “What? Why? What are they going to do?”

“Shoot you, probably. Security risk an’ all that. But I ain’t the cops.” Benjamin offered her the donut box. “Your total’s $8.16.”

Mutely, Olivia gave him the ten dollar bill she found earlier. He passed her the donuts and her change. Shoot me. They’re going to shoot me. Is he going to shoot me?

“See ya later!” he said with a wide grin that now fully mirrored his mask.

She nodded and backed away again, nearly tripping over her own feet, the forgotten newspaper still clutched in her hand with the donuts. It was fully morning when she finally escaped the donut shop. More cars drove by, the sounds of their tires echoing off the tall buildings nearby. She took flight, heading straight back home as the sun warmed her back and wings. Unnoticed by anyone, she stormed into her apartment and collapsed on the couch. The donut box and newspaper fell to the floor by her hand.

Her heart took a long time to stop racing. After hauling the dresser back to block the door, she returned to the couch and finally read the article of the paper. Animal control. Animal control is hunting me. People think I’m just some feral thing. She sniffed a little bit, letting the paper drop to the ground once again. They said I can’t even talk. I’m a dumb animal. Am I just supposed to be some animal? A feral? What are they going to do to me if they catch me? Shoot me? That’s what Benjamin said they would do.

A frustrated hiss rose up in her throat. Why don’t I know anything? Her claws dug into the paper. She took a deep breath and set the paper down. Enough, I have donuts. She picked up a fresh donuts still tasted far better than dumpster food. She inhaled three more in quick succession. The sun was full in the sky now, and she felt her eyelids droop. She settled back on the couch and tossed a blanket over herself, only partially covering herself.

Sleep did not come easily. The claws of her long toes tapped against the bottom of her foot as she started at the ceiling, going over everything that day in her head. Who was that guy at the shop? He killed another guy that night. Did he just goes right back to making donuts? Who would do that? But he didn’t shoot me. Everyone else is afraid of me.

For once, she slept on a full stomach.

3: Skulker

The heavy pounding of the guitar shook the foundations of the supposedly abandoned bar. Ben joined the screaming voices with a grin. The filthy walls of the basement were covered in various posters of bands who had graced the venue before. More power than simple sound shot from the speakers mounted to either side of the makeshift stage. Always fun when the band has super powers, Ben thought.

Two halves of the roughly fifty person crowd separated, Ben included, and jumped to the sound of heavy metal. The beat picked up. Ben threw his mostly empty beer bottle into the face of a skinhead across from him, then joined in as the opposing sides charged. He ducked under a punch from somewhere, then came up in a shoulder check. The mass of people on the other side knocked him back. The press of bodies on all sides barely kept him on his feet. Ben laughed and sang along to the unintelligible lyrics, fist raised in the air. Someone screamed in pain off to the side. Ben pressed forward, twisting out of the way of a switchblade as it flashed out of the mob. Fucking skinhead.

The next stab the skinhead took, Ben grabbed his hand and drove a fist into his wrist. As the knife dropped, Ben jabbed a thumb in his eye for his trouble. The skinhead’s shock of pain allowed Ben to bring the elbow of his free arm down on the skinhead’s nose. People around them cheered. Before the skinhead could recover, Ben shoved off of him and vanished into the mob around them.

The drums reached a frantic pace. The mob eased off, then slammed into each other again. And again. And again. Ben lost track of the skinhead, time, and the stage, but no one else tried stabbing him again. Then mood of the mob shifted.

Police sirens sounded, barely audible over what could only loosely be described as music. He laughed as warning shots were fired overhead and the door at the back of the room burst open. It just isn’t a good underground mosh pit without the cops showing up. The mob began to disperse; the band cut off. Ben sprinted past fleeing mob members towards an open window set high in the wall of the basement. Shit, too tall to climb quick. He grinned again. Eight feet away, he reached, jumped, and teleported.

The teleport put him close enough to the window, still in the same position as when he’d jumped on the ground. His extended hand grabbed the ledge, and his momentum carried him fully through. He sprinted into the night as others began to climb the wall behind him. Others surged towards the police, who responded with rubber bullets. He teleported between the two cops waiting by the windows before they could react.

With a couple more teleports, Ben left the sirens and screaming far behind him. Damn that was fun. Gotta remember that band. He slowed to a walk as he approached his car a few minutes later, an old forest green jeep with the back bumper rusted off. Scanning the abandoned parking lot, he unzipped his pant pocket and fished out his keys. The engine rattled as he attempted to start it. The check engine light lit up for the millionth time. Damn thing’s been having ignition problems for the last month. The engine started properly on the third try.

Time? He turned on the headlights, then tapped the clock on the jeep’s radio. Three AM. Got some time before work starts. The engine didn’t squeal in protest when he put it in reverse, so Ben backed out of the parking garage and onto the empty streets. He kept an eye out for any police cruisers on the road on his way back to his apartment. I don’t think the grenades in the back are legal.

Twenty minutes later, Ben slipped back to his apartment complex. His hands drummed against his legs from residual adrenaline. No one saw him as he entered his apartment and closed the door behind him. He jumped up a couple times in the living room, landing light on his feet. Need to do that more often. Work is killing me. Got maybe an hour until it’s back to the grind. Damn bakeries and their early hours. Sleep?

In his bedroom, Ben grabbed the long rifle off his bed and leaned it in the corner. The knives he threw on his desk. Uniform clean? Yes, good. He checked himself over as he changed. Some scuffs on my shins, didn’t even feel those. That’s a nice bruise on my chest, but no big deal, the uniform should cover that up.

He held up the red collared shirt with the happy, smiling donut on the right breast. Should patrol tomorrow night, though. Sanchez has been getting real bold lately. The glint of his grinning mask on the nightstand caught the his eye. Gotta pay the bills. Not much else if you don’t have a high school diploma. Besides, donuts are fucking awesome. There’s about a billion worse jobs, and I’m not missing out on much sleep anyways. He smiled to himself. Just gotta keep telling myself that.

He put on the shirt, then crashed on the office chair in front of his computer. Any other bands like that? Ones with powers? Let’s see here. Some fucking country singer, nope. Jazz, nope. Some religious nuts bitching about powers, nope. Come on, the world isn’t this boring. There’s gotta be something out there. He tore himself from his computer after an hour or so. No point putting it off. Time to make donuts, motherfucker!

***

The next night, Ben grabbed a black duffel bag and laid it out on his bed. What do I need for tonight? He grabbed his sniper rifle in its sheathe first, stretching the bag lengthwise to fit it in. His few remaining flashbangs he’d stolen from one of Sanchez’s arms dealers went in next, followed by a pistol, its holster, and two magazines. He stuffed a switchblade into his boot and tossed a few more into his bag.

He moved onto the gear his brother Rob had made, pulling a long, curved knife from its sheath. Shit, do I need to sharpen this? He said something about that. He held it down on his desk, edge pointed up. With his free hand, he plucked a hair from his head and dropped it an inch above the knife. The strand of hair split in half the moment it floated down to touched the edge of the blade. Nope, still good. He set that in the bag, then examined his mask.

On the outside, it looked like solid metal. Inside, two circular bits of glass marked the eyes. Over the mouth sat a small block of white plastic with slots over it. Rob had assured him any toxin going through would be neutralized. He had tried explaining how it worked once, everything he’d said went way over Ben’s head. It works, that’s all I need to know. Soft grey felt covered the remainder of the inside.

He placed the mask in the duffel bag and zipped it up. Where do I want to go tonight? Downtown? That where Sanchez’s guys have been? Shit, I dunno. Flying blind is only so fun for so long. With the bag slung over his shoulder, he returned to his jeep. Five attempts to start it later, the engine rattled to life. North? South? Fuck it, right sends me north, and I don’t have to wait for this damn light.

The streets were close to empty once he began driving, with nearly half the cars he passed by cop cars. Damn, they’re out in force. He kept his speed reasonable, not too fast, not too slow. Cops tended to despise vigilantes like himself. No one paid him any mind, he was just a guy driving in a beat up old car. He stopped at the top of a parking garage and strapped his equipment on over his hoodie and black pants. He slipped his mask on last. Skulker time!

Skulker ran to the edge of the garage and jumped up to the edge of the wall. His teleport at maximum range brought him just across the street and onto the roof of the next building. He jumped from one building to another, never staying for more than a minute to observe the area. He didn’t expect to find anything, but trying never hurt and it got him active.

The city’s criminal element had come roaring back with an almost cult like fervor since nearly disappearing last Christmas. ‘Sanchez will have his due.’ I’ve just gotta find someone who won’t just say that over and over again. From what he could pick up from the police band, the cops weren’t having much luck either.

He eventually stopped and sat on the edge of a building overlooking the Rocky Mountain Shopping Center, deciding to relax for a bit. It was a quiet April Monday, the air was refreshingly cool. It probably wouldn’t warm up until sometime in May. The donut shop where he worked at was below him. Shouting came from the north side of the strip mall. Well what do you know? Grinning in anticipation of something to do, he hoped back to his feet and teleported.

Before he reached what he had judged to be where the people were, he saw three men running hard away from the street, blocked from Skulker’s view by the building he was standing on. Hi there! He drew a switchblade. Just as they were about to run under his position, he jumped off the building, then teleported to the ground.

As he landed in a crouch, he drove the blade into the foot of the first man, the one with an impressive black eye. Skulker took advantage of the man’s forward momentum to flip him over his shoulder, tearing out the knife in the process. The other two barely had time to react before Skulker righted himself and drove a kick into the stomach of the second man. The third man had a knife, and swung it wildly at him.

Skulker teleported a couple feet through the gap between the two men, to just behind and to the side of the knife man, then spun and slashed at the armed man, leaving a shallow cut across his back. The second had recovered and swung a punch at him. Skulker ducked his head, saw that the man had overextended himself, then turned and brought his elbow into the man’s throat as hard as he could. He went down gurgling.

It was just Skulker and the knife man now. The man tried a desperate stab at Skulker, but he spun out of the way and drove his foot into the man’s knee. He collapsed, knife coming free of his grip.

“Sanchez’s boys? I got some questions for you,” said Skulker as he loomed over the man, pistol aimed at his forehead.

The man laughed through ruined teeth. He spat blood and said, “No, you little prick. We’re gonna die. There’s a-”

“Not what I’m lookin’ for.” Skulker cut off the man with a shot to the head. Before he could move on to the next one, he noticed someone about five feet away to his side and felt his smile evaporate. A big girl in ratty old clothes, with a massive pair of wings, clawed hands, and a tail loomed by the entrance to the alley. She might have been up to seven feet tall if she stood up straight, but the wings extending above her head made it hard to tell. Inhuman silver eyes locked onto him

Oh fuck me, that’s a feral.

“Shit” he muttered.

The feral hunched over and hissed the moment Skulker made a move, claws uncurled and ready. He froze. He didn’t bother trying to talk, ferals couldn’t. They stared at each other for a long moment, his pistol still halfway between it and the dead man. If the stories were true it wouldn’t even feel the bullets. Why the hell aren’t you attacking? He prepared to freeze time the moment it made a move towards him.

The feral’s hissing died down, and it slowly started to back away. Skulker remained in place until she disappeared down the corner she came from, their eyes never leaving each other. Skulker took a deep breath and relaxed slightly. Beside him, the man with the bleeding foot whispered, “Sweet Jesus, thank you.”

Fuck. I’m definitely gonna have to call cops now. Animal control is gonna need their help. Should have just shot the damn thing once it was running off.

He pulled out a disposable phone and dialed 911. “Hello, this is 911, what is your emergency?” asked a calm female voice.

“I’m Skulker, vigilante, on 16th. Spotted a feral. Big, lizard, female.” One of the thugs at his feet groaned, rolling over with a hand pressed to his ribs. “I also got three would be muggers here, one dead, two injured.”

He hung up the phone before the 911 operator could respond and teleported away. Once he had a block’s worth of distance between himself and the scene, he turned and headed towards his car, keeping out of sight the moment he spotted the headlights of a car. Fucking feral.

Wait a minute, it was wearing clothes. What kind of feral does that? He slowed, reconsidering. Murder and disappearance rates had risen in the past year, though he hadn’t hear of any murders chalked up to animal attacks. Can ferals be smart? And what the fuck was it doing around those three assholes? Damn it, something super weird is going on here.

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.

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.

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