Church

It was quiet and somber inside the church. Only the murmuring voice of the minister could be heard. He stood behind the podium, front and center. A large statue of the Savior stood behind the minister, its arms spread wide in a gesture that was supposed to be welcoming. It peered down at all the congregates with sad, stone eyes.

Noah and his family sat near the back, his mother on his left and little sister on his right. His father sat next to his sister, nearest to the aisle. He heaved a sigh, not a word of the minister’s sermon processing in his brain. His little sister’s face was front, but he was pretty sure she had fallen asleep with her eyes open. His mother and father were riveted though, seeking the promised salvation.

The minister droned on. Even though Noah couldn’t quite make out what the minister was saying, he could hazard a guess. It was eternally about damnation and how only living by the rules of the Church that governed them could they be saved. They lived in a damned world, in a damned city, and everyone was a sinner. They might have been chosen by the Church to be allowed into the city’s walls, but that wasn’t because they were saved – it was because the Church saw the opportunity to save their poor souls.

Noah tuned out the minister’s voice and looked around the church. He turned his head only a little so as to remain inconspicuous. His mother or father or both would reprimand him if they didn’t think he was paying attention. His parents bought fully into what the Church said. They lived and breathed the rules of the Church and demanded the same of their children. Noah’s little sister was pretty good about performing her duties and following the rules. Noah, on the other hand, had enough flagellation scars to make even the penitent criminal look like a model citizen. The only reason he wasn’t out on the streets or being held by the Church like a criminal was because his father was a Church Enforcer. That and Noah hadn’t actually done anything big enough to warrant being taken by the Church for guided repentance. It was mostly small things, but things that his parents wouldn’t let him get away with. Spare the rod, spoil the child.

As Noah let his eyes roam around the church, he would pause to gaze at some of the scenes the stained glass windows depicted. The rise of a leader chosen by the Savior. The heathens revolting. The war between what became the Church and the heathens. The Church’s victory. The brimstone to rid the world of those who would oppose the Church. The rise of the world today. There was also one that depicted a wasteland where the nonbelievers would be banished to. It served more as a warning to those who even entertained the thought of turning their backs on the Church. His father had threatened his removal and banishment from the safety of the city on more than one occasion.

During Noah’s study of the wasteland stained glass, the door of the Church opened. It creaked softly and a rush of wind whipped through the open doors, but then a click was heard and the wind stopped. His sister had perked up at the noise and turned in her seat. Before she could get any further around though, their father whispered a reprimand. Noah watched as his sister turned back to face front, a pout on her face. It stayed there for only a minute though as their father leaned down to her to whisper something. Whatever it was, it removed the pout from her face as a blank look took its place, giving nothing away. Noah gave a soft snort. She was probably threatened with flagellation.

Not wanting to get caught like his sister since it wouldn’t be a threat of flagellation, but a promise, Noah watched the aisle from the corner of his eyes. A family of three that Noah didn’t recognize came in looking frazzled. They took the pew across the aisle from Noah’s family and filed in, father, daughter, mother. Although, as Noah watched, he could see the daughter wasn’t frazzled so much as amused. She had a smirk across her face while her mother ushered her to sit down.

The daughter wore all black, like the rest of the congregation, although a flower was pinned to one of her lapels. It was a big yellow flower that stuck out. Her hair was shoulder length and blonde. Unlike the other girls her age, she kept her hair down. It wasn’t something that was against the rules, per say, but the other girls and women kept their hairs up in tight buns. Some thought that wearing their hair down was disrespectful to the Savior. Wearing one’s hair up showed modesty and modesty was an important virtue.

As the sermon went on, Noah kept coming back to the new family, the daughter in particular. Her bemused expression only went away when she was exchanging it for one of obvious boredom. She shifted in her seat and kicked the pews in front of her during her shifting. It was more noise than Noah had ever remembered hearing within the church, outside of the sermon. Noah watched as her parents would nudge and whisper to her, but the daughter would only settle long enough to lull her parents back into security before going about her noise routine. It became a distraction to other parishioners. It even distracted his dad, and, for that, Noah decided he liked the daughter.

After another forty-five minutes passed, the minister began his closing remarks. The stillness of the church let up just a little bit as even the more devout within the congregation became anxious. Sitting for so long was uncomfortable no matter how much one followed the rules. His sister became a ball of barely contained energy as her feet began swinging. His mother brushed off her dress and his father cleared his throat.

Just as the minister ended his sermon, the silence within the church was broken in the most unexpected way: laughter. It burst through the air suddenly and caused more than one person to jump, Noah included. His mouth dropped open and he didn’t even care if his parents yelled at him later, but he twisted his head towards the source of the noise. The daughter sat in the pew, her shoulders shaking and hands pressed to her mouth in an attempt to stifle her laughter. Her mother looked ready to burst into horrified tears while her father looked ready to strip her down to administer flagellation right then and there.

Noah’s father stood from his seat, his Church Enforcer face on. He made his way to the new family and leaned past the mother to speak directly to the daughter. Noah couldn’t hear what was being said, but guessing from his father’s gestures and his knowledge of his father, he was officially calling for repentance. There was a repentance room with a cat-o-nine available for use by anyone. No doubt his father was directing the daughter towards there.

The mother slid from the pew to allow the daughter out. Despite Noah’s father’s presence, the daughter still had an amused smirk on her face. She looked uncaring of the fact that his father was an Enforcer demanding blood payment for the Church. In fact, as she made her way towards the repentance room, guided by his father who had an iron grip on her bicep, she saw Noah watching her and tipped him an amused wink. It slipped by his father who would have undoubtedly hauled Noah out of his seat to pay repentance simply because if he had noticed.

Surprised by the wink, Noah only just managed to contain his surprised laughter. He gave a hard snort which received a withering glare from his sister and a squeeze on his shoulder from his mother.

Yes, he would have to get to know the daughter. They could compare flagellation scars.

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Hoard

The market square was busy and packed. Humans and nonhumans alike were crowded into the square. Vendors were set up in long rows, one stand next to the other for ease of viewing. Most customers moved from one to the other, glancing at the wares that each held. They would stop when something caught their eye and study it. Other customers, those who knew what they wanted, moved as if on a quest. They wove between the other bodies, eyes searching for the stall they needed.

Windwalker was one such customer.

She slipped between human and nonhuman, doing her best to avoid jarring anyone. She wasn’t always successful, but no one said anything to her. She received a few nasty glances, but she was sure she would have received those even if she hadn’t jostled the offended party. Despite the market being open to all species, there were some who thought it should be more restricted.

Eyes sliding from stall to stall, Windwalker finally found the one she was looking for. It was a stall that sold precious and rare metals. It was run by an angry looking, gruff dwarf named Barlo. Windwalker could see him standing behind the counter of his stall, furry eyebrows furrowed and skin weathered with hard work. Most people who got near the stall veered out and away from it once they caught sight of the dwarf.

Slipping her way through the crowd, Windwalker sidled her way up to the counter with a wave and jolly smile. “Good morning, Barlo!”

“Lass,” grunted Barlo with a polite nod, “what can I help ya with t’day?”

“I’m looking for some top quality mithril,” said Windwalker as she placed her forearms on the counter and leaned in towards the dwarf, “and I mean top quality. I need the best you have.”

Windwalker watched as the fuzzy red caterpiller that was Barlo’s left eyebrow climbed upward. It disappeared amongst the wild tangle of hair that was braided, knotted, and curled that was upon Barlo’s head. The fiery red hair and beard probably added to the dwarf’s perceived angry aesthetic.

“Tha’s gonna cost ya some pretty coin girl,” said Barlo as he rocked back onto his heels. He made no move to retrieve any metal.

Windwalker knew what Barlo was waiting for. Even though the two had been dealing for years, she knew where his interests lie. The metal he displayed was metal that he’d only break someone’s legs for if they stole it. The stuff she was asking for was no doubt under magical lock and key. It was stuff, if stolen, the dwarf wouldn’t hesitate to kill over. She’d need to show him she could buy what she was asking for.

Reaching toward her waist, Windwalker fiddled with a bag that had been secured to her belt. Muttering a few magical elven words under her breath, the bag released into her awaiting hand. She pulled the bag to eye level and bounced it within the palm of her hand before dropping it on the counter between her and Barlo.

Barlo reached towards the bag with one hand, moving slow and deliberately so that Windwalker could see he didn’t plan on trying to swipe it. Not that it would matter if he did try to do so. Her elven reflexes would have his hand pinned to his own counter before he realized what had happened.

Barlo poked at the bag until the top loosened and he could see into it. Coins of different sizes and colours glinted back at him. It was a mixture of different currencies, but Windwalker knew that Barlo wouldn’t care. He was in the business of making coin no matter what kind of coin it was.

She watched as Barlo’s face went lax, as it did when he was thinking. He was probably working up an estimate of what Windwalker was offering and what he could give her in exchange. She could almost see his thought process through his eyes. With a blink, Barlo met her eyes and gave her a sly smile.

“How much mithril ya lookin’ for?” asked Barlo as he turned from her and went to the back of his stall where a large chest sat. The chest was large enough that Barlo could fit comfortably in it if he wanted to. Windwalker was guessing that it was probably an enchanted chest and was actually larger on the inside than it was on the outside. Barlo went down to one knee in front of it with more grace than one would think he had. His stone slab of a body wouldn’t hint at grace, at all.

“I’m making zweihänder,” replied Windwalker who watched in amusement as Barlo turned to look back over his shoulder at her. The other red caterpiller joined the first in the wild forest of hair. The clear disbelief was scrawled across his carved face.

“What in tha gods are ya making a zweihänder for?” inquired Barlo as he turned back to begin unlocking his enchanted chest.

“Weapon of choice,” remarked Windwalker with a small, mischevious smile on her face as she studied her nails. She heard Barlo give a hearty snort and the creak of the ancient chest as it was opened.

“My arse,” mumbled Barlo as he stood from the chest and let it fall shut with a loud thunk. He turned to walk back towards Windwalker and the counter. “Elves don’t use big ugly swords like a zweihänder. They use rapiers and long daggers mostly. Sabers when they’re feelin’ real fancy like. Sometimes a shortsword or a bastard if they’re feelin’ barbaric, but never a zweihänder.”

Barlo set the mithril on the counter between him and Windwalker. The counter creaked under the weight of the metal. It was wrapped in cloth and tied closed with twine. Barlo reached out to begin pulling apart the knots and let the cloth fall open to reveal the mithril wrapped inside. It shined almost white and was brighter than most mithril than she had seen.

“I guess I’m not like other elves than, hmm?” said Windwalker as she reached out with one pale hand to touch the mithril. It was cool to the touch and smooth. It has been rendered by the best dwarven hands. It had no impurities. It would be hard to shape into what she needed, but it would be well worth it. Pure mithril blades were almost indestructible, never dulled, and held enchantments at their full power.

Barlo chuckled at Windwalker’s comment. “Ahh lass, I knew I liked ya for a reason.”

Windwalker threw a smile Barlo’s way before she went back to studying the mithril, impressed with the craftsmanship that was needed just to pull the mithril from its mine. As she was studying the precious metal, she heard Barlo clear his throat and looked to him, thinking that he wanted his payment. She nudged the bag of coins towards him.

“This is enough, right?” Windwalker asked, concerned that she had underestimated the cost of what she was purchasing.

“It’s enough,” said Barlo as he continued to look at her. “In fact, I want ta cut ya a deal.”

At this, Windwalker dropped her hands away from the mithril and stood straight up. Her gaze hardened and her body tensed. Dwarves didn’t make deals, ever.

Barlo put his hands up in a gesture of surrender. “Hold on, hold on. Hear me out. I ain’t tryin’ ta rip ye off. Yer my best customer, after all.” He chuckled and looked to Windwalker.

“Go on,” she said, relaxing only the tiniest amount, still on edge about what Barlo could be thinking.

“I’ll give ya a little discount on the mithril in exchange for takin’ a troublesome coin off muh hands,” said Barlo as he brought his hands down from their surrendering gesture and spread them out in front of him, palms up.

It was Windwalker’s turn to have her eyebrows disappear into her own hairline. She never thought she’d live to hear a dwarf not only give someone a discount but also give away coin willingly. There had to be a catch.

“Is this coin cursed?” Windwalker asked as she crossed her arms over her chest, one eyebrow settling and the other arching in disbelief. Her lips were pursed as she settled weight into one leg, the other kicking out so her hips were cocked.

Barlo gave a hearty chuckle at that but shook his head. “Nah lass, nothing of the sort. I promise ya, it’s not gonna give you bad luck, bad health, bad nuthin’. It’s just a coin that is a pain ta have ta carry around.”

“Let me see it,” said Windwalker.

“Nuh-uh,” said Barlo as waggled a finger in her face. “Take the deal or leave it. I promise you on all my dwarven ancestors that this coin will give ya no ill will or fate, but ya gotta decide without seein’ tha thing.”

Windwalker brought a hand to her mouth in thought. A discount on the mithril, no matter how small, was a discount. She was also sure that Barlo would never try to screw her over. Even though neither one of them would call the other a friend – she was an elf after and he was a dwarf – but they were close acquaintances. They’d had a few drinks together over the years and fought back-to-back in brawls so she didn’t think he’d wish any ill will on her. It was just strange. She was curious though.

“Fine,” agreed Windwalker as she shifted to put her palms flat on the counter. She leaned her weight onto them and swung down so her face was close to Barlo’s. “Deal.”

“Ha-ha!” laughed Barlo as he clapped his hands. He reached towards the coin purse and pulled out the payment for the mithril. He handed it back to Windwalker who was surprised to find it still heavy with coin.

“This is some discount you’re giving me, Barlo,” said Windwalker incredulously as she weighed the purse in her hand before enchanting back to her belt.

“No one else will take this coin,” said Barlo as he felt along the shelves that were hidden beneath the counter. The coins he pulled from Windwalker’s bag were safely tucked away in Barlo’s own magic coin purse. “Ya doin’ me a favor, lass.”

Windwalker watched as Barlo bent over, mumbling to himself as he tried to locate the coin that he wanted to get rid of. His comment and mumbling only made Windwalker more curious about what she had gotten herself in to. No matter what was going on with the coin though, Windwalker knew it was well worth it.

“Ah! Here!” cried out Barlo as he stood up and gestured for Windwalker to hold out her hand. She did so, hesitating only a little bit before she held out her hand, palm up and waiting to receive the troublesome coin.

Barlo moved his hand over hers and gently placed the coin into Windwalker’s palm. He pulled his hand away to reveal the coin that sat in her palm.

For the second time, Windwalker’s eyebrows disappeared at what she was seeing. Holding onto the gold coin that she was cradling was a tiny black dragon. It gazed up at her, smoke pouring from its nostrils in teensy wisps.

“You’re kidding me,” said Windwalker with disbelief. “A dragon? You’re giving me a dragon?”

“No, no,” said Barlo, hands on hips, “I’m givin’ ya a gold coin tha happens ta have a dragon attached ta it.”

“Oh, so you’re giving me a dragon and its hoard?” said Windwalker sarcastically as she waved her hand that wasn’t holding the gold coin with the dragon attached.

“We made a deal,” said Barlo as he crossed his arms across his chest.

Windwalker could only roll her eyes and pull a face. Her eyebrows were permanently stuck in her hairline as she pursed her lips.

“How big is this thing going to get?” asked Windwalker, resigned to her fate. She’d never get the coin from the tiny dragon without killing it which she wasn’t willing to do. Dragons were an extremely rare species, hunted to the edge of extinction, and were great magical beings. There was mutual respect between dragon and elves. There were even stories of dragons allowing elves to ride them in times of war.

“It’s a jeweler’s dragon,” explained Barlo, “it’s about as big as it’s goin’ ta get.”

“Jeweler’s dragon?” Windwalker inquired as she brought her hand close to her face to get a better look at the tiny dragon.

“Tha’s what we dwarves call ‘em, anyway,” said Barlo as he began packing up Windwalker’s mithril for transport. “Dwarvish jewelers would use ‘em to keep safe precious jewelry. I’ve heard ‘em called dew dragons as well since they’re tha size of dew drops.”

Windwalker hummed at Barlo’s elaboration. She’d never heard of such tiny dragons, but she was sure someone back in her village had. The little thing stretched out its wings and shuffled them against its body before settling down against the coin. Windwalker could see it flex its pinpoint claws against the edges of the coin.

“Can I put it in my coin purse?” asked Windwalker as she stood back up, done with her inspection of the dew dragon.

“Sure,” said Barlo as he shrugged. “It might move ta another coin tha it likes more, but tha’s about it. And don’t squish it.”

Windwalker nodded before twisting around to get to her coin purse. She muttered an enchantment so that she could open the purse and tugged it open. With care, Windwalker placed the tiny dragon and its tiny hoard into the bag before closing it up tight.

With a defeated sigh, Windwalker turned back to the smug looking Barlo. She gave him a dirty look but tipped the corner of her mouth up to let him know she didn’t mean anything by it before reaching out to scoop up her mithril package.

“Thanks for the mithril,” she said as she turned away from Barlo’s stall and made her way back into the crowd.

“And thanks for the dragon, I guess.”

Trick-or-Treat

“Trick-or-treat!”

Mr. Dudley chortled at the exuberance of his visitors as he admired the costumes they wore. His portly belly bounced with his chuckles and he held out the bowl of candy for the kids to pick through. Wonder Woman took a pack of Skittles while her companions, Batman and Superman, both took Kit-Kats. Happy with their decisions, the children stuffed their candies into their buckets and turned from Mr. Dudley’s door with cries of thank you, off to the next house.

Waving the children off, Mr. Dudley peaked around and saw that he had a break in trick-or-treaters. He pulled his head back into his doorway and shut the door as he set the candy bowl down on the end table next to the door. Trick-or-treat was nearing its end, but he was sure he’d get a few more stragglers so decided that he’d leave the candy out for now.

Mr. Dudley turned from his door and walked toward the back of his house, his kitchen his destination. He needed a glass of water to wet his parched throat. When he arrived in his kitchen, he walked to his sink and reached above it to pull out a cup from the cupboard. He filled his cup with cold water and chugged the glass down like a man just come from the desert. Mr. Dudley then filled the cup again, but only sipped on it, the worst of his thirst gone.

As he sat sipping the glass of water, Mr. Dudley heard a knock on his door. He set the glass down on the counter and smacked his lips with an ahh of satisfaction. Pushing away from the counter, Mr. Dudley waddled his way back to the front, scooping up the candy bowl as he swung open the front door with a smile on his face.

Before him stood a young boy without a costume, dressed only in jeans and a hoodie. The hood of the hoodie was pulled up over the boy’s head, throwing shadows across his eyes so Mr. Dudley could only see the bottom half of his face.

Mr. Dudley’s smile faltered, but he kept it plastered on. Not everyone could afford costumes, after all. “Trick-or-treat?” he prompted the youth before him, gently.

“Trick,” said the boy with a flat voice.

Mr. Dudley’s eyes widened before he began laughing, his stomach bouncing. The boy was cheeky, he’d give him that.

Mr. Dudley held out the bowl of candy to the boy who dipped his hand into it. When the boy drew it back, Mr. Dudley saw that he had plucked out a Twizzler. Without hesitation, the boy ripped open the treat and stuffed the wrapper in his pocket before popping the candy into his mouth.

As the boy nibbled on it, he tilted his head back to look up into Mr. Dudley’s face. The boy’s hood fell back a bit. It wasn’t enough to fall off of his head, but it was enough to let the light shine on the boy’s whole face.

Mr. Dudley’s laughter died off as he looked into the boy’s eyes. They were like two coals, all black with no discernible pupil, iris, or sclera. He could feel the boy’s eyes looking through him, into his very soul and he stepped back from the boy in fright.

“Wha-” began Mr. Dudley, but his voice faded as his mind tried to make sense of what he was seeing.

“Thank you,” said the boy as he continued to stare at Mr. Dudley, either oblivious or uncaring of Mr. Dudley’s timorousness, “Twizzlers are my favorite.”

As the boy finished his sentence, the pitch of his voice dropped low and took on the strange quality of two voices speaking at once. Without thought, Mr. Dudley crossed himself, something hadn’t done in a long time but seemed like the right thing to do.

The boy chuckled when Mr. Dudley did that. “Don’t worry, mortal. I’m not here to collect any souls for Hell.” Even the boy’s laughter sounded gravelly and like two people were laughing at once.

Sweat broke out across Mr. Dudley’s face and he could feel his knees faltering. He wasn’t sure what the boy was saying, but he did know, somewhere, somehow, that the boy he was looking at was not just a boy. He sunk to the floor, his legs folding beneath him as they could no longer bear his weight.

The boy stepped through the doorway and Mr. Dudley felt a pure, intense fear settle within him. It was all he could do to not release his bladder at that moment. The boy walked right up to Mr. Dudley and he was sure that the boy was going to do something.

Instead, the boy dipped his hand again in the candy bowl that Mr. Dudley somehow managed to hold onto. When he brought his hand out, the boy was holding a fistful of Twizzlers. The boy then turned and made his way back out of Mr. Dudley’s house, but paused on the doormat. He looked back over his shoulder toward Mr. Dudley, his coal black eyes reflecting back Mr. Dudley’s twisted, terrified expression.

“Thank you,” said the boy again as he raised his fistful of Twizzlers before he was just gone.

Mr. Dudley blinked in shock and surprise, breaking free from his fearful stupor. The candy bowl finally fell from his grip and spilled candy everywhere. With his mind finally catching up to the fact that the boy was just…gone…Mr. Dudley struggled to his feet as fast as he could before he threw himself at his door. It shut with a resounding slam. Turning so his back rested against the door, Mr. Dudley switched his porch light off and mopped his face with his shirt sleeve.

Mr. Dudley was done with Halloween for the foreseeable future.

Lycanthropy

Logan let the creaky screen door slam shut behind him and jogged away from his house. He made a beeline for the treeline that stood at the edge of his family’s property. The moon cast a long shadow out behind Logan that looked like it was chasing after him. Once he broke through the tree line, Logan’s shadow melted with the shadows of the tree.

He continued his trek straight back into the forest, mindful of where he was stepping so he wouldn’t trip, but uncaring of the noise he made. Crickets could be heard making music with bats adding in their squeaks. Other odd noises floated through the relative silence but Logan was unafraid of what the forest held.

After walking for close to ten minutes, Logan came to an abrupt halt. He glanced around to take in his surroundings, confident that he was alone but wanting to make sure he was anyways. It was one of the rules. Nothing stood out to him in the filtered moonlight, just trees as far as he could see.

Satisfied that there were no prying eyes, Logan began to strip down, starting with his shirt. The cool autumn air brushed up against his skin but Logan relished in it. He always ran hot so the cool air was soothing. He kicked off his shoes and socks next, followed by his jeans. He folded all of those items into a neat little pile. Giving one more glance around, Logan dropped his shorts and added those to the top of the pile.

Enjoying his nakedness, Logan stretched his arms above his head, muscles pulling and flexing. After hearing a few satisfying pops, Logan let his arms fall in a sweeping motion and touched his toes. He took his time to enjoy the pull in the back of his legs before switching into a new stretch. Logan kept this up for a few minutes, working his body limber as if he was getting ready for a workout.

Once he felt loose, Logan came back to a standing position and took a deep breath through his nose. He exhaled hard and closed his, turning his face upwards. He could feel the moonlight wash over his skin and bathed in it. He felt its humming power in the light and soaked it in. Logan could feel his skin begin to tingle and he let himself fall into the feeling.

When Logan opened his eyes, the moonlight threw everything into high relief. He could pick out individual shadows that he hadn’t been able to see before. On the breeze that came through the wooded area, Logan could smell autumn – decaying leaves, sharp dirt, crisp cold. He could hear the snapping of the smallest twig and the rustle as leaves moved against each other. Moreover, he could hear the heartbeat of his prey.

Falling to all fours, Logan took off at a pace that was easy for him but would easily outrun a cheetah. The wind whipped by, rustling his fur and whistling in his ears. He breathed through his open maw, gusts of hot air releasing into the forest and sending steaming clouds upwards. He could taste everything he smelled in the air.

In only moments, Logan came upon his quarry and slowed down his pace. He was fleet-footed in his werewolf form and thus the deer ahead of him had not heard him over the wind. It stood alone, chewing on the bitter roots that it could find, ears swiveling on its head to listen for danger.

With care, Logan moved to position himself for a surprise attack upon his prey. Once he was sure he was out of the deer’s peripherals, he dropped close to the ground and edged himself forward. He could have just continued his run and felled the animal, but it was never fun when he did that. He liked to take his time and really feel like he was on a hunt.

Logan slithered over the soft ground, mindful of where he now placed each large, clawed paw. He pulled himself toward the deer, inch-by-inch. As he closed in, Logan shifted into a pounce position. As he did so, the wind shifted and blew his scent towards the deer. Before the deer had a chance to register what it had smelled though, Logan struck and lept at the animal, claws and fangs extended.

Together, Logan and the deer rolled. Logan gripped at the deer’s hide with his claws and sunk his teeth into the deer’s throat. By the time the two stopped rolling, the deer was dead without knowing it had even died. Logan might like the hunt, but he didn’t like needless suffering.

Logan shifted to stand on his back legs, looking odd in the upright position. While it was something he was able to do, it was similar to seeing a tall, shaggy dog stand on its hind legs. It wasn’t unnatural, but it wasn’t natural either. He bent over to scoop up the deer and threw it over his shoulder like it weighed as much as a sack of feathers. Shifting the deer so that it sat firm on his shoulder, Logan began to jog back to where he left his clothes.

It took Logan a little longer to get back to his clothing, but he didn’t want to risk dislodging the deer from its position slung over his shoulder. As he came upon his clothes, Logan swung the deer down with care and placed it on the forest floor. Just as he scooped up his shorts, a shadow broke from one of the trees.

“Are you really going to carry that deer back in your human form?”

Logan jumped at hearing a woman’s voice and clutched his shorts to his chest. His claws threatened to rip them to shreds. His eyes fell to the woman who had spoken when she broke from the shadows and relaxed. His mother stood across from him, one eyebrow raised and arms crossed across her chest.

“Jesus, mom, you scared me,” muttered Logan with a voice that sounded like gravel, vocal cords not used to human speech.

“You need to make sure no one is around when you change back,” said Logan’s mother with a disapproving tone, “not just when you change initially.”

Logan bowed his head in acknowledgment of his mother’s wisdom. “I’m sorry.”

“Mmm,” hummed his mother, “it’s alright, this time. But if it happens again, I’m telling your father.”

Logan’s lips pulled back from his sharp teeth in a parody of a grimace and his wolfish ears turned back. If his father found out, he’d tan Logan’s hide for sure.

Logan’s mother smirked at her son, satisfied that he’d be checking his areas before changing back from now on. “Get your clothes on if you think you can carry that deer in your human form.”

Logan nodded at his mother before stepping into his shorts. As soon as he did so, he could feel himself shifting back into human form. The transformation back wouldn’t be complete until he put all his clothes back on and the prickling of his skin subsided.

Once he was dressed and all remnants of his wolf form had diminished, Logan scooped the deer back up. He slung it across both shoulders, a mock animal scarf draped around his neck.

“Let’s go then,” said Logan’s mom as she gestured back in the direction of their house. She turned her back to him as she picked her way through the forest.

A small smile crept onto Logan’s face. Another rule was to avoid turning one’s back to another wolf whenever possible. Logan had done that plenty of times only to be attacked by his parents or siblings. He could fend off his siblings easily enough and he even started getting the upper hand on his father, but his mother always laid him flat. The temptation to drop the deer and launch an attack on his mother was tempting, but not only would she roundly embarrass him even with his sneak attack, but she would also beat his hide raw for dumping the deer so disrespectfully.

Dismissing his plan as foolish, Logan fell in line behind his Alpha.

Doctor

Julia worked quickly, her hands moving with practiced ease over her patient’s body. Blood covered her gloves while sweat covered her face. The man below her only had a few minutes left in him. The extent of his injuries was severe: multiple lacerations, internal hemorrhaging, numerous broken bones, and both lungs punctured.

She wiped at her forehead with the back of her gloved hand, uncaring of the blood smears it left on her face. Julia brought her hand back to her patient and focused on the task at hand. She took a steadying breath and closed her eyes, focusing all of her intent on the man beneath her. A green glow came to life around her hands and spread like tendrils out over the man.

With the tendrils, Julia poked and prodded at all the injuries she could find to determine where to start first. She decided on the internal hemorrhaging and sent her tendrils to feel around inside the unconscious man. The glowing tendrils sent feedback to Julia and she was able to make a mental map of the man’s injuries. Satisfied with what she had sketched out on her closed eyelids, Julia upped her intent and began healing the internal damage. Muscles, tissues, and organs were knitted back together. She stimulated the man’s natural healing factor so that it could help assist her. Her tendrils acted as sewing thread, scalpels, and cauterizers. They were all the medical equipment she needed.

Sweat dripped down Julia’s head to pool in the hollow of her throat, but she didn’t stop to wipe it away. Instead, she moved her intent once she was sure the hemorrhaging was stabilized and focused on the punctured lungs. Like she had done for the internal bleeding, Julia sent out her intent and let her tendrils gather information so she could make a mental sketch of the damaged lungs.

Julia worked like that, systematically moving through the man’s injuries. She didn’t waste energies on fully healing the man but focused on stabilizing him. There were others that she needed to tend to and would have to tend to so she needed to conserve energy. As long as she could get him and others like him into a stable condition, she could hand of her patients to her underlings who could finish up the rest. They didn’t have healing abilities like her, but she had been a trained doctor and thus passed down those skills to them. It was enough for what they needed to do.

Once she was certain that the man could be passed off without needing her further, Julia called over one of her underlings to take him away. She called over another one and ordered him to take her to the next patient on the triage list.

The injuries were similar on her new patient and Julia didn’t hesitate to get to work. What felt like hours, but was probably only a handful of minutes, passed like that. Julia worked her way through each patient, stabilizing them and then passing them off, only to take on a new patient. Blood covered Julia from head-to-toe, but she took little notice of it. It soaked into her clothes and smeared her skin.

As Julia was working on a patient, she felt her powers flicker. She opened her eyes to stare down at her hands that were encased in green. As she watched, her tendrils began to recede and the glow on her hands dimmed low. In a flash, the glow and tendrils were gone, leaving only Julia’s hands on the patient.

“Nurse!” barked Julia as she whirled around to find one of her underlings. Her eyes landed on one that was rushing to her, his eyes wide with fear and sweat dotting his forehead.

“Uh-uhm,” stuttered the underling as he twisted his hands, “we-we have an issue.”

“I can tell!” snapped Julia as her eyebrows furrowed and red blossomed on her cheeks.

“We’re out of ani-animals,” said the underling, swallowing hard as his eyes darted everywhere so he wouldn’t have to meet Julia’s eyes, “they’re all dead.”

Julia growled and lashed out to grab her underling, dragging him close to her. His face scrunched and he tried to twist away.

“I can’t heal the boss’s men if I don’t have something to draw on,” snarled Julia, her grip in her underling’s shirt tightening and threatening to rip the shirt. “Find me more animals or people or whatever has a life force I can use to heal these soldiers!”

Julia threw the underling away from her and to the ground. He landed hard but scuttled quickly across the ground to get away from Julia. She launched a kick at him and connected, smirking with satisfaction at the pained yelp. It was like music to her ears.

Her satisfaction only lasted a few moments before her smirk fell to be replaced by a scowl. Her underlings were good at taking care of the boss’s men when she was done with them, but that’s about all they were good at. She was incredulous that the idiots had let her life force source dry up. Her healing ability relied on an exchange – a life for a life if one willed. She couldn’t heal someone without draining another of their health. Her underlings were lucky that she wasn’t using them instead. At least, she wasn’t using them yet. If they didn’t return soon with a new batch of sacrifices, she was going to reconsider not using them.

Underlings like hers were easy to replace, but the boss’s men were highly trained soldiers and indoctrinated to the cause, ready to die. The boss would be upset to lose so many loyal men, especially to the oppressive, government-funded superheroes. Julia’s underlings would be the sacrifices if need be and she was happy to make that decision.

It was all for the glory of the cause, after all.

Familiar

Sarah walked down the sidewalk of her street, her house only a couple blocks away. She bounced to her toes with every step and hummed a made-up tune. With thumbs tucked behind her bookbag’s straps, Sarah adjusted the bag every few steps, working to relieve the pressure in her shoulders. Her bag wasn’t too heavy, but it still dug into shoulders from time-to-time and made them ache.

She walked with her head down, eyes just in front of her shoes. They traced the cracks in the cement and tried to see pictures in them. With every particularly big bouncing step, Sarah’s bangs would fall into her eyes and she’d swipe them away with her hand to tuck them behind her ear. They would slide free, but she would just swipe them from her face again without a thought like it was an ingrained habit.

With her head tilted down and bangs falling into her face, Sarah didn’t notice the two boys approaching her. They had started on the opposite side of the street, but once they had noticed Sarah, they switched to the other, nasty smirks slashed across their faces. The two boys could tell that Sarah hadn’t noticed them because she would have done her best to avoid them otherwise.

Still unaware of what was happening, Sarah continued to hum her toon. It was only when it was too late did a niggling in the back of Sarah’s head have her looking up. As her eyes fell on the two boys walking towards her, they collided with her. The boys split just as she stepped up to them and they slammed into each of her shoulders, sending her careening backward. Sarah wasn’t able to get her footing under her and tumbled down to land on her backside.

“Hello Kyle,” said Sarah through gritted teeth, “Mark.”

The boys nudged each other and snickered.

“You should watch where you’re going, loser,” sneered Kyle, the bigger of the two boys.

“Yeah,” remarked Sarah in a strained voice as she rolled to her feet, flinching with a bit of pain, “you’re probably right.”

“Who said you could get up, loser?” snapped Mark as he shoved her shoulder again.

Sarah stumbled, but caught herself, the shove not unexpected.

“Come on, guys,” pleaded Sarah, eyes tired and worn. “Can’t you just let me go this one time.”

The two boys looked at each other and made faces, shrugging their shoulders in silent communication. They nodded at each other and looked back to Sarah.

“Nah,” said Mark.

“I don’t think so,” said Kyle.

The two boys approached Sarah and she reeled backward, moving away from the advancing boys. As Kyle made to reach out to grab her, a piercing meow interrupted the moment.

“What the…” began Mark as he turned around to find the source of the noise. Kyle froze in his attempt to grab Sarah and looked over his shoulder to Mark.

A black cat sat on the sidewalk behind the two boys. Its tail flicked back and forth as if agitated by the presence of Kyle and Mark. Its ears twitched atop its head, one pointed forward and the other swiveled back against its head.

When Mark and Kyle’s attention was on the small black cat, both ears pulled back to lay flat against its skull. Its eyes narrowed and it opened its mouth to show off its fangs. It let out a wicked hiss as its tail lashed back and forth.

“Kick it,” said Kyle casually.

Mark took aim and kicked his foot out, but the cat was nimble and light on its feet. It jumped out of the way of Mark’s kick and snapped out its paw, razor-sharp claws extended. It caught the exposed skin of Mark’s ankle and slashed angry red lines into the skin.

“Ow! Fuck!” cried out Mark as he jumped away from the attack. He squatted down and touched his ankle. He pulled his fingers away from his throbbing ankle and found that blood was on his fingertips. “The little fucker scratched me!”

Kyle stepped away from Sarah and towards the cat, hands balled up ready to strike out at the animal.

The cat stood its ground and arched its back, fangs bared and a deep growl resonating through its entire body. Its tail stood straight up and puffed up.

Sarah watched as Kyle moved towards the animal, intent clear in his body language and face. He meant to strike the cat, probably dead. His cruelty knew no bounds whether human or cat. In a panicked state, she swung her backpack off of her back. Just as Kyle pulled up to the cat, arm pulled back ready to strike out, Sarah took a strap in her hand and swung her bag around. It struck Kyle in the back with a heavy thump and sent him tumbling forward. He hit the ground on all fours, stunned at what happened. He turned his head over his shoulder to look at Sarah and she could see thunder crossing his face.

“Why you,” began Kyle, but he wasn’t able to finish the sentence. The black cat threw itself at him, claws and fangs out. It attacked every inch of exposed flesh on Kyle, including his face. Kyle tried to roll away from the cat but only ended up thrashing around on the ground trying to bat the cat away.

Mark was on his feet and rushed to Kyle’s side. He pulled his leg back again, taking aim again at the cat. Just as Mark launched his attack, the cat sprung away, leaving Kyle to take the brunt of the kick.

Kyle oomphed as Mark’s foot connected with his side.

“Oh man, dude” cried out Mark as he leaned over to help Kyle back to his feet. He patted Kyle down in an attempt to soothe Kyle’s injuries.

“Get off me!” yelled Kyle, throwing a fist at Mark, but missing. Mark took the hint though and stepped back.

The black cat had made its way to Sarah, dancing around in a challenge with fangs bared. The low rumbling from the cat continued, its ears still flat and tail still puffed up. Sarah bent to scoop the cat into her arms, forming a protective cage around the cat.

“Leave him alone!” yelled Sarah as she pulled the cat further into her chest. The two boys, Kyle, in particular, looking worse for wear.

Sarah and the two boys squared off, the moment tense. It was only broken by the hissing of the cat in Sarah’s arms. Mark stepped towards Sarah and the cat waved a clawed paw out at him. Beads of red could be seen on the tiny razors. Mark stuttered to a stop.

“Forget it,” said Kyle, a sneer back on his face, although it lost some of its heat due to the fact that red and bleed welts littered his face. “That cat is insane.”

Mark tched but backed away with Kyle a few steps before turning they turned their backs to Sarah and the cat. They threw a few glances over their shoulders to make sure Sarah and the cat remained where they were left. Once the two boys reached the end of the block, they turned off the street, probably looking for an easier target to terrorize.

With a sigh of relief that released the tension in her body, Sarah loosened her grip on the cat. She spun around the now purring cat so that she could hold him at arm’s length. His body language indicated he was also relaxed. Without Sarah supporting his bottom half, the cat stretched out to the length of an accordion.

“Wix,” said Sarah, “I’ve told you not to bother with the human boys.”

The cat looked at Sarah with intelligent gold eyes and meowed.

“I know you could take care of them for me,” responded Sarah, exasperated but amused, “but we can’t anyone figuring out what you are.”

The cat meowed again, in what would sound like, even to a casual observer, a sassy tone.

Sarah rolled her eyes and smirked, pulling Wix back into her chest and cradling him. Once she was sure Wix was set, Sarah swung her bag onto her back and began the last leg of her trek home. Wix purred in contentment in Sarah’s arms.

“You’re still a bad boy,” said Sarah as she reprimanded the cat gently, not truly angry with Wix’s interference, “what if one of them had noticed your shadow or lack thereof?”

Dragonslayer

The knight rode up to the ominous castle on a horse that had seen better days. The castle that lay ahead of the knight was made of dark stone, almost black. Parts of the tallest towers had fallen away and more of the castle was crumbling. Vines with thorns crept up the stone, weaving itself through the spaces between the stones and into the broken windows.

Bouncing atop the jaunting old horse, the knight took in the surrounding area, eyes searching from behind the old rusty helmet. The knight, known throughout the lands as the Rust Knight, saw no threats on the outside of the castle and so pulled the horse to a stop as they arrived outside the doors of the bleak castle. The knight lept from the horse and landed with creaking rattles. Flakes of red rust fluttered from the knight’s armor that had also seen better days.

Striding forward, the knight reached the large wooden doors of the castle. Tarnished iron rings hung from the large doors and the knight reach out to grasp one in an armored hand. Pulling hard, the knight grunted as the door first refused to move before squealing open with a stubbornness normally only seen from the old horse.

After great exertion, the knight stepped through the door and took in the new surrounds. Broken furniture, torn pictures, and cobwebs littered the area that the knight was in. Large rats that probably carried some sort of plague fled from the knight’s entrance, squeaks echoing off the dark stone.

As the squeaks died down, a deep roar echoed from somewhere within the bowels of the castle. The knight adjusted the armor that had went askew when slipping through the door. Once adjusted, the knight then pulled the one item that remained rust free from its scabbard: the sword Ravager.

It gleamed even in the dim light, the steel strong and the edge sharp. It glowed an ethereal silver, cleaner than the Rust Knight’s armor had ever been. It was made for battle and it had seen many. It would see many more to come, but first for its mission in the castle.

Giving a few test swings, the Rust Knight was satisfied with the sword. It whistled through the air, cutting air itself. The Rust Knight then delved deeper within the castle, following the echoing noise of the roars that had continued since the squeaks of the rats died down.

There was a princess waiting to be saved and a dragon to take care of.

After walking tirelessly, the Rust Knight arrived in a large, open room within the depths of the castle. All around the Rust Knight laid treasures only seen in the imaginations of children. Metals and gems of all kinds were everywhere. Large piles of gold and silver coins made small mountains. Pearls of all colours and sizes, cups of all shapes, and even fancy dinner plates could be seen mixed in. Paintings of all kinds – portraits, landscapes, and fantasy – and statues of full bodies and busts laid about. Enough treasure to last a lifetime was laid out before the Rust Knight.

But it was not the treasure the Rust Knight was interested in. No, it was the enormous red dragon that laid atop its hoard that had the Rust Knight’s attention. One large, golden eye, the size of a dinner plate, was focused on the Rust Knight. It did not blink and neither did the Rust Knight.

The Rust Knight strode forward, gleaming sword in hand. The dragon raised its self from its lounged position and stepped down from its pile of treasure. The Rust Knight and the dragon made their way toward each other, focused only on the other. The dragon’s head swung from side-to-side in time with the Rust Knight’s sword.

They continued toward one another.

Toe-to-toe came the dragon and the knight. The Rust Knight looked up into the scaled face and the dragon looked down at the armored knight.

The Rust Knight reached up with the hand not holding the sword and grabbed ahold of the helmet. With a flourish, the knight pulled the helmet off and released a cascade of blonde hair. It fell around the knight’s shoulders and halfway down the knight’s back. A flushed face with roundish cheeks and piercing blue eyes looked into the golden eyes of the dragon.

“I’m here for the cursed princess, Lady Juliana,” cried out the Rust Knight, tucking her helmet beneath her arm. She dug the tip of her sword into the ground and leaned her weight on it.

The great red dragon dipped its head until its chin almost touched the floor and its large golden eye was level with the knight.

“I am the cursed princess, Lady Juliana,” said the dragon, “who might you be, brave knight?”

“I’m your knight in shining armor, princess,” said the knight. “Some call me the Rust Knight, but my name is Gwendoline Dragonslayer. I come from nowhere.”

“Well, Gwendoline Dragonslayer of Nowhere, how do you plan on breaking the curse?” inquired the dragon.

“What are the terms of your curse, princess?” asked the knight.

The dragon heaved its body in the mockery of a shrug. “I have had this curse for as long as I can remember. All who came here before you fled in fear upon laying their eyes on my monstrous appearance.”

The knight nodded and tucked her chin to her chest. Her eyes fluttered shut and became still. It was only a moment before the knight looked to the dragon again.

“In tales such as these, kisses seem to do the trick,” said the knight as she removed the point of her sword from the ground. It had no dirt clinging to the tip and so the knight replaced it in its scabbard at her hip.

Once the sword was secured, the knight stepped right up to the dragon’s snout. She laid a hand on its scales, surprised to find them cool to the touch. Overcoming her surprise, the knight closed her eyes and leaned in, placing a kiss upon the red dragon. When she pulled back and let her eyes open, she found a small, red-haired princess standing in front of her. Golden eyes peered up at the knight from behind messy bangs.

The girl raised her hands in front of her face and turned them over, inspecting them. She then looked down at herself and smoothed the ill-fitting dress of wrinkles. She wiggled her toes and touched her hair.

“I thank you, Gwendoline Dragonslayer of Nowhere,” said the no longer cursed princess. “All these treasures, all this land, and all of the castle now belong to you.” The princess swept her arm wide to indicate that all was indeed the knight’s.

“And what about you, Lady Juliana?” asked the knight with a smirk and sarcastic tone.

The little red-haired princess gave a wicked smile that showed off sharp teeth.

“I too belong to you now.”