We saved our little world and of course that was great. People who would have been cold in their grave, or too torn apart for just one grave, went about their lives, complaining over late hours, incompetent staff and cold dinners.
We did a lot of good, the seven of us, but it felt wrong. Every day was a rosebush in my heart, each victim saved a beautiful flower and each word from my comrades a thorn. Inside my heart.
The worst kind of thing was like when a hishi spirit came towards me and I knew that now, now was when I’d die.
Jeremy got in the way. To his white bear-form I could almost be grateful.
After battle Tessa let us transform back to our human forms and he came over to tease. “Gotten slow, huh? Look out or you might become a burden. Oi, Tessa. Did you give her any power?”
Tessa glanced from him to me with her big, dark eyes. She nodded. Tessa was the quiet leader. So quiet anyone, really, could take her position without being called out on it.
“Next time,” Jeremy added, “maybe you should do that combo with Sadie.”
Sadie snorted. I glared at him. He knew full well that Sadie and I failed whatever we set both our minds to. Such was the fates of the underdogs, both struggling for second last.
“Myra,” Tessa said before Jeremy could continue, “take a few days off.”
In the end, Tessa IS the leader. She holds our power, she distributes, and she withdrew mine. She left me with a minimum, enough for an emergency. She ought to have left me more. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to make it with this but said nothing and went home.
Three days, nothing.
Five days, nothing.
Eight days, don’t they need me?
Twelve days, did something happen?
I sit at home. Go for runs.
Frederick shows up. Of course it’s him. Tessa, in spite of her poor social perception, knows Zac would only get cross with me and Desiree … Well, how can you even talk with her? How to trust someone who transforms to a scorpion? A beautiful scorpion …
So Frederick comes over while I’m watching one of those shows where a man hands out roses to women only this time it’s all men instead and the hosting guy is handicapped, so it’s doing its very best to be controversial.
I have popcorn and assume he doesn’t want any.
“So …” He folds his hands between his knees. Looks from hands to me, back to hands. “How are you?”
“Just flamin’, Freddie.”
“Ready to come back?”
“Do you want me to come back?”
He appears confused. There’s this wrinkle in his forehead. Like, wtf is she talking about? “Of course. It’s better to be six fighters than five. Tessa almost got bitten the other day when we were out in the countryside, they had these problems with the wild beasts we’ve heard talk about from the south.”
I sink back in my couch. “I’m not ready,” I say.
“You look well enough.”
“My body’s not what’s sick.”
His brows are raised. Such a painfully clueless person.
“Tell Tessa she can come see me some other time.”
I shoo him out of the apartment before he can say anything of consequence.
There’s a knot in my gut. It hurts. I’ve tried to will it away but that doesn’t work. The city needs me and my neighbors ask questions. I’ve tried to tell myself that “tomorrow – tomorrow is the day I return,” but then the knot sharpens into a razor and shoots into my intestines.
Tessa sends Jeremy. He’d never come on his own.
I’m lucky to see him from the window and I can go down to meet him before I’m forced to let him into my apartment.
“We’ve got a mission tomorrow,” he says, hands in pockets.
He shrugs and squints towards the sun. “You comin’?”
The wry smile on his face does worse to my gut than the knot and I grin. “It’ll be good to see some action,” I say. “Can’t have you running the show all by yourself.”
“It’s true, I do run it.” He laughed. “I’m rather enjoying it. Get ready – we meet tomorrow up on Witherer’s Bite 11.”
“Why do we meet at Sadie’s?”
“She insisted on serving breakfast. Who says no to a free meal?”
That’s the only reason he’ll show up. Had it been Desiree or Tessa or Frederick hosting he’d show up gladly.
I am nauseous and while my vision blurs I say yes, sure, I’ll come.
The nausea doesn’t disappear and I sit at Sadie’s table eating crumbs for breakfast. She’s serving croissants and jam and bacon, all boring food. We’re fighters. How does she expect us to get any nourishment out of this? I imagine we’ll die today on the battlefield, all because of Sadie’s weird food planning.
We take off in two cars. All the girls are with Tessa and the boys with Jeremy. I wish I could have just driven with Frederick and Tessa, I mean, those two are kinda nice when it comes down to it.
Desiree is silly as always, flinging her black hair from side to side, rolling her eyes in extreme grimaces and grinning way too much.
I look out the window but can’t help being pulled into the conversation now and again.
“Come on, race them, race them!” Sadie snickers as we drive up on the side of the boys’ car and we smile and wave at them and Jeremy vrooms at us.
Frederick calls Desiree and she laughs and says “monkey see, monkey do” while I think to myself she should get it over with, either accept or reject him.
The site today is on the outskirts of our city and it’s obvious from the scorched marks in the ground. Nothing has grown here for years.
Zac transforms to his eagle and watches from the ksy while the rest of us go around in our human form – except Sadie, whose dog nose is unmatched – and look around for traces of our enemies.
It happens for independent cities like ours to suffer the weight of the big. Sometimes we don’t even know what they do to ruin things for us, and I doubt they’re aware of it, too.
But other times, and this is such a time, it was obviously other fighters who had terrorized our borders.
I don’t like it. They’re somewhere near and I have a feeling who it might be. There’s one of the interconnected cities only a hundred kilometers north of here and they like to beat on us, waiting for the moment we’re too weak and they can crack us like a walnut.
Tessa lets me turn into my pantherform and hiding becomes second nature. As a shadow I creep from tree to tree, bush to bush, low in the grass and out of sight.
Frederick follows my example and turns to a monkey. It would be better if he stayed human. That’d make the others cocky. Our fighting forms would alarm them, and they know Desiree and I can hide easily.
I smell them before they attack.
From a crouch the scene is visible.
A gnu gallops out of the bushes, heading straight for Tessa.
Jeremy transforms to his polar bear form, but the gnu is big and its horns powerful. Zac flies out of the sky to help but a gunshot makes him leap again.
So they have modern weapons now. I wonder what new allies have supplied them with this. It’s fatal, all of us know it, and in the long run it could mean their victory.
It could mean that today.
I let them handle the obvious and go looking for the snake. He’s a green mamba and a scrape from his fangs is deadly. Zac and Desiree would be better candidates for hunting him but both are preoccupied as a huge rabbit sprints at them. It runs around in a circle and every time Zac tries to take him there’s a gunshot. Zac might be trying to drive them out of bullets but who knows how many they have? Of course, they’re not easy to come by, so perhaps it’s a good strategy.
I don’t know, but they’re getting closer to Tessa.
I’m snake hunting and cannot care for anything else. I sense Frederick somewhere in the forest around me and feel safer. The snake is poisonous but I have my fire paws.
However, Tessa doesn’t let me activate them. What’s up with them? Are they that hard pressed?
I crawl into a tree to avoid accidentally stepping on the snake and glance around while I wander from tree to tree. I hear Tessa shouting somewhere and Jeremy roars. More gunshots.
There’s no worry in my heart.
I jump. The snake hasn’t seen me and I step on it, pushing him down into the ground. His scales are hard like metal and he’s not squashed easily. I’ve tried many times and am away before he lashes out.
He slithers from side to side, watching me. Frederick is close now.
I look at the snake and wait. If he tries to run I’ll get him and there’s no way he can hurt me from there. He’s been found out.
We’re like that for a minute or two.
He transforms and it startles me to see his human form sit on the ground instead, black hair tousled and pale skin aglow.
I can’t frown in my panther form but that’s what I’m doing internally.
We stare at each other for a little while before he jumps, turns back into a snake and slithers away just as Frederick comes swinging in the trees. The monkey cocks his head to the side, very human-like, but I run away, back to the others, I don’t care if the snake is hiding.
Tessa is wounded. We managed to keep them at bay but we’re going to have to stay here for a few days to evade similar attacks. What do they want this time? It’s strange because there’s nothing in this area, no provisions, no intel, no material goods. I worry about that while the others worry about Tessa.
Her arm’s broken but it could’ve been her neck if Sadie hadn’t been at the right place at the right time to face their wolf.
A sad sight she was, Sadie. All torn up. Bleeding, even in her human form. She sleeps it out now. I made some relaxing tea for her so she can gain strength. We’ll need her for tomorrow.
In the evening, as we eat, Frederick asks: “Why didn’t you kill the snake?”
The others look fierce.
I eat my dinner without shaking. “I couldn’t use my fire paw.” Let it rest at that. Tessa was preoccupied and my accusation would be ignored, anyway.
“Next time I see them,” Jeremy says, his hands making motions in the air, “I’ll squash them, ice breath or none, I’ll beat the little fuckers up!”
Sure you will, sure, because all the other times you’ve tried were just play, pretending they were stronger than us, pretending you couldn’t beat them. Sure, sure.
I won’t be able to sleep so I take the first post.
There’s a low stone tower overlooking the dead meadows and I stare out over the landscape with eyes as sharp as my claws. All the power is mine. Tessa always gives the guard most of her energy, which only makes sense, but hey, this isn’t always the most sensible of businesses.
It’s a great feeling. One I’ve experienced too rarely for it to be fair.
A person shoots up on the meadow. Obviously a transformation. Only one? It must be the snake, unless they got another member that also turns into a small animal.
Before I can raise any alarm his arms are up. What the fuck is he doing?
I jump down and run closer. He waits while I climb a hill so I can look down on him. He meets my gaze, which I know many don’t like. They’re so yellow and crazy.
“You fight differently,” he says. His voice is hoarse as if he’s been shouting.
I can’t answer in my panther form.
“Will you change for me?”
What if it’s some kind of bargain? But if I change and have to shift to panther again I’d have to wake Tessa.
“I want to talk. I’m alone.”
Gotta risk it.
We look at each other. It’s strange to stand before each other like this. We’ve fought quite a few times, though it’s mostly Zac that deals with him. He once bit me and I would’ve died if it wasn’t for my fire paw. I awakened it that night, during all the sweating. It’s the only time I’ve been able to steal power from Tessa who, of course, hadn’t left me anything to fight with.
They assumed I’d die.
“I fight as I always do,” I say after a long time.
“There was no intensity,” he said, “no desire.”
“This is a job like any other. Some days are good, some are bad.”
“Most of yours are bad.”
Am I that obvious? Do I show it during battle? Maybe that’s why Tessa doesn’t give me more power. Perhaps I’m not trustworthy at all.
“I don’t know how your city still stands with a team like yours,” he goes on. “When you fight you’re not a unit. You and the polar bear, sometimes you work against each other. The dog is out of whack and the scorpion and monkey are too worried about your leader to do anything of consequence. You’re all powerful and I guess that’s the only reason this city has a chance. It won’t stand forever, though. We’re coming to destroy you.”
“I appreciate the heads up.”
“Look! That battle won’t be about sneaking around during the afternoon and stealing. It’ll be about killing and we’re all going to lose. I don’t want to see my friends die. That’s why I’m here, talking to you, since you don’t care about your friends at all.”
“Of course I do. They’re my comrades!” But my voice is a pitch.
“I wouldn’t come like this if I didn’t think there was a chance. Only one from my team knows I’m even here.” He spreads his arms. “You could kill me, you know. I don’t have any power, but I had to take the chance.”
How I hate him. “Are you the snake in the garden of eden now?”
“Yes! And you have to bite the apple or be trapped in your piteous place a few weeks more and then die.”
“This isn’t about death,” I snap. “It’s not about my fear of death so stop saying it as if it is. I’ve had plenty of opportunities to die and it’s only duty that kept me from grabbing them, so that’d never be my reason to betray them.”
He smiles. “So you’ll come.”
“I’m not a traitor!”
“You’ve already betrayed them in your heart.”
“What is it exactly you propose? The pact forbids me from hurting them and if Tessa calls I must answer.”
“Just come with me.” He walks up the hill. “We’ll bind you during the battle, so you can’t heed her call, and when she realizes there’s no hope of your return she’ll let you go so she can give your power to the others.”
We’re at arm’s length from each other now. He has a boyish look on him. He must be maybe three years younger than me, nineteen tops.
“And would you protect me then?” I snort. “Take me to your city where I know no one? You realize there are people in this city I love.”
“And they’d be under our city’s rule from then on,” he says. “They’d be safe.” He lays a hand on my arm and I slap it off. His arms are down his sides, he smiles. “And what would you do? You’d be one of us, of course. A talent such as yours! But your light’s not allowed to shine here. Don’t you want to shine?”
“Of course I do!” I hiss and take a step back and stumble. Shit, regain balance!
He doesn’t attack. If he has a knife the opportunity was right there.
“Don’t take it so hard,” he said. “After all, they won’t. They’ll feel entitled to hate you but how much do you really lose? Do they love you now?”
“Stop!” I cry out.
“Don’t wake them up!”
“I should! I should wake them up, you damnable thing! Turn into a snake so we can fight.”
He jumps back several meters in one go. Even in his human form he’s agile as fuck.
He grins. “You’re cute with that expression. Just admit this kind of power is tempting.”
I shake my head. “I’d never consider it if …” I close my eyes. Damn it!
“If your team shared more?”
“If I liked them. If … if they liked me.”
“So join us.”
“And if I’d been Jeremy, the polar bear … you would’ve asked him as well?”
“Yes. But he wouldn’t fit our team.”
I swallow. Consider the things in my room at the other end of the city. It’ll be destroyed during the transition. But none of those materials have had any value since I started being who I am now. Nothing’s useful for anything.
And it’s done.
Tessa is calling on me.
Every muscle contracts and burns against the strain of the ropes. I scream and writhe but nobody hears me.
After an hour of maddening disability the draw sips at me. All my powers float away and I try to hold onto it, to my panther and my shadows, but Tessa is merciless and leaves me cold.
They’re back. Snake – whose name is Casper – frees me.
I cry for a bit but mostly for me than for them.
Their leader comes to me.
“Casper promised you a place with us,” he says.
“It’s … not necessary,” I whisper, but my heart is pounding as he scrutinizes me.
He takes my hand. It’s warm.
A wind and a light rises around us, similar to when Tessa welcomed me into her heart.
He’s pulling me in and I’m on my way when it strikes me.
What if this is just as horrible? What I hated was the dependency and this leader will control my flow of power as Tessa had.
“I’m not that kind of leader,” he murmurs and I believe him. They all look so strong, especially the gnu woman, who is raw strength.
I slide. Cave in.
Give it to me. All of it.
Afterwards I rise with exhilaration in my veins. So much power. And so much trust! How can they give me so much right off the bat? So that’s their secret.
“Transform,” Casper whispers.
The gnu girl grins and the rabbit man laughs while squinting.
“Stunning,” their leader says and I look down. There are flames. My fire paw is back ten fold. My fur is orange fire but there are black stripes, like coal, in between. I’m bigger.
A tiger. No longer creeping in the shadows but a torch in the night.