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Cinder used the powerful camping lantern to light the front room, figuring if Drake did wake, at least there would be light and he could find the bathroom. He glanced back at the couch noting the child had not so much as rolled over. He paused at the front door and listened carefully to the youngster's breathing. Finding it even and smooth, he finally slipped out the front door, locked both deadbolts and walked toward the meeting point.
The streets were virtually empty. The entire walk he saw only one car and a pair of teens. The second the boy and girl saw him they moved quickly in the opposite direction. This meant the two were probably not very street hardened. By fleeing so quickly they actually set themselves up as easy marks. Knowing he had some spare time he hung back and followed until he saw the pair enter a house with more boarded up windows then glass ones.
He stood back and waited an extra five minutes, making sure no one else had taken an interest before he moved on. Cinder sniffed the rain washed air, and focused on every sound. Nothing else moved in the total darkness of the night. The only sounds at all came from within a double wide trailer. A woman was screaming at someone about not knowing where the candles and flashlights were. He couldn't help but chuckle at the stupidity of living in this area and not knowing where the backups for light were kept. Ever since the tornado had decimated the area three years prior, the whole network of power and water was nothing more than a patchwork mess. The storm earlier in the evening had taken out the power grid to the entire area, which should not have been a surprise to anyone.
Of course the ritzier areas of the town had a brand new power grid, new sewer lines, new schools, new police stations, new fire stations complete with fire trucks, the whole package. But the laborers, the real working stiffs didn't rate so high, and probably never would. Cinder figured the power would eventually get back to what it had been, only failing a couple of times a week for an hour or three. After all, with each major outage like this, the power company had to replace something big and sooner or later there would be nothing pre-tornado left to replace.
He shrugged off the thought. He had a generator big enough to power the whole house and a pair of smaller units to keep a few lights, fridge, and microwave going should the big one fail. His next major project was to build something in the back where he could install a propane tank large enough to not have to worry about gassing the generator up every time the power went out. The problem was, something else always seemed to get in the way. As he continued to make his way to meet and get the stuff for Drake, his mind wandered some. He started thinking about his private mission, the thing that had driven him away from almost everything. His unwavering commitment to find his only true friend in his whole life, in simple terms his life really revolved around his single overriding vow to find out what really happened to his friend now nineteen years missing.
His job and his continued investigation of the strange goings-on at the museum was his latest and most promising lead. It was more than enough to fill his time. He was sure the place was nothing more than a major testing center, hidden in plain sight. It had one real goal, and it certainly wasn't teaching history. Instead, almost half the exhibits were rigged with a multitude of sensors. Their sole purpose, as best as Cinder could figure out, was to detect mental powers of children.
Each week, during the school year, field trips of third grade and fifth grade students came through, some as far away as fifty miles. During the summer, camps of kids would show up, bussed from Boy and Girl Scout camps, summer programs, and even church camps. They would wander though the exhibits while a recorded voice, on a hand held unit, told them about each one. It certainly looked innocent enough. The problem was, the pre-recorded messages were designed to get a response, not to just teach. Some would suggest things, like the horse drawn wagon display, did.
As kids gathered around the exhibit, the wires in the floor would activate the small hand held units each child got as they walked in and a voice in the headset would give information. It first talked about the problems of traveling in a wagon over vast distances. It then went on to talk about the man in the front of the wagon and how it was typical for such travelers to have guns. It was at this point when the voice got a bit softer. 'Now imagine the rattle snake in front of the horse curling up, raising its tail and rattling it.'
It seemed like a good transition, but it was repeated, and should anyone ask, they would be told it was a glitch in the system. But the truth is it was not a technical problem at all. Instead the repeated words were heard by all kids, only kids... Most of the time the group of students shrugged it off and nothing happened. However, once in a while the snake would twitch. The second it did a sensor inside the snake would start recoding data on how much movement and for how long. If it was more than an inch of movement, the 'glitch' would kick in again and tell the children to imagine the man raising his shotgun and pointing it at the shaking tail of the rattler. This only happened if the snake moved, however, so most never heard it.
At this point, normally nothing happened and the recording would move on, directing the kids to move on. Once in a while the snake would move even more and sensors recorded the event. If this happened the voice would tell the kids to take a different path, saying the new wing was open and they would get to see it. Much more rarely something else happened. The man's gun would move. If the movement was more than two inches the voice repeated itself. If not it was logged and the kids moved on to the new wing.
However should the gun move more than two inches and the snake continue to rattle and move then the recording switched yet again. This time the voice changed to a female, "Can't you just see how afraid the horse would be at seeing a snake on the path? Wouldn't it want to back up and show its big teeth as it heard the rattling sound and its owner trying to point his gun at the snake? How about the woman and her son on the wagon? One of them would have to grab the reins to get control of the horse before they lost control."
At this point sensors throughout the display came on. Any new movement was cataloged. Should anything move or continue to move more than three inches the female voice would continue to make suggestions, if not the group was told to go to the 'new wing'. If it did cameras would focus in on the students and catalog the faces with the readings. At some point the suggestions would stop, but the whole class would get a special invitation to an overnight field trip in Kansas City within just a few weeks.
Dozens of other exhibits had similar cues. However, some where based on electrical lighting, others on mind effecting scenarios, and yet others on spatial oddities. Although Cinder knew about mental abilities manifesting in humans from a very young age, referred to those in the know as Mentalists, his interest in them was nothing more than a curiosity. It remained nothing more than an interesting side note to life until his friend in the fifth grade vanished within two days of his class taking a special overnight field trip to Philadelphia...
His thoughts were interrupted as he spotted the old tan Malibu Classic station wagon moving toward him. The thing was smoking like a freight train. And the engine was making some serious clunking noises, far more than just an engine knock and as it hit a bump the left front head light went out for a few seconds.
Cinder let out a light whistle, totally amazed the car ran at all. As the teen pulled up, Cinder had to wave a hand in front of his face to clear some of the smoke. "Damn, son, you weren't kidding. This piece of shit needs some serious work!"
The teen nodded, "Yeah, tell me about it. Problem is I know squat when it comes to cars and rent is due Monday. Maybe I can have someone do something with it with the cash you promised."
Cinder raised an eyebrow as a new thought occurred to him, but he kept it to himself for the moment. "So, what'd you managed to get me."
"All sorts of shit, but kept it basic. I got help from one of the old ladies. I told them my cousin was coming to live with me and my dad and he lost everything in a fire. I told her he was seven, but didn't know what sizes he would need. She took me around and helped me find the best bargains and then talked to manager and got me an extra ten percent off.
"Still, everything I got is real plain. It was way cheaper to buy nothing with a logo or fancy anything. They didn't have any water shoes, but they helped me find a clearance rack of kids' shoes at eight bucks each. I got three sizes. One should fit good enough to let you get him to a store to buy something better. I also got the receipt so you can take back what you don't want." The teen chuckled while pointing to a score of plastic Wal-Mart bags. "I also got you milk, soda, lemonade mix, three boxes of cereal, pop tarts, some canned raviolis, some snack cakes, tooth brush, toothpaste, and a handful of travel size soap and stuff the lady and manager threw in for free. I spent the last nineteen bucks on a bunch of Hot Wheels. It was the only thing I could think of that every kid seems to like."
Cinder let out a short gasp, "Well, damn...You done good kid, real good..."
"So do I get the three hundred?"
"Hell yeah." Cinder pulled out the three bills but didn't hand them over right away. "These are yours, but I want to ask you something first.
"You want me to take this all to your place so you don't have to carry it all?"
"Yeah, that would be pretty high on my list at the moment..." Cinder snickered. "What's your name, anyway?"
"Braeden, most people just call me Bray."
"Well Braeden...How about a bigger deal?"
Braeden continued to eye the three hundred dollar bills as he spoke. "Like what?"
"Unless I am totally off here, you are on your own, right?"
"Since I was eleven, before if you don't count the time my father was alive but too drunk to realize me and my brother were alive." Braeden stated with a huge measure of disgust. "Why?"
"Where's your brother?"
"I'm not sure why you want to know, but he took off with some rich girl a few years back. Don't have a clue where he's at now, nor do I care. So why the twenty questions?"
"Humor me for a few more minutes." Cinder pulled yet another hundred out of his wallet and added it to the other three.
"Fuck, short of sucking you off or getting in bad with the cops I'll sit here till daylight for another bill, you throw in two, and I may even consider doing the first." It was clear by Braeden's tone he was only half joking.
Cinder openly laughed hard enough to where he had to grab his ribs. As he calmed, he looked into the teen's eyes with a big smile on his face. "Damn, Bray, you're great. Anyway..." He couldn't help but chuckle again, "How old are you?"
"Seventeen..." He lowered his head as he decided he better be honest. "Well... next couple of months... Um don't tell my boss, OK?"
"Seventeen it is." Cinder responded without any hesitation. "Last question, and before you answer this I need to know the truth. There is no wrong answer."
Braeden cocked his head to the side and spoke much more slowly, "Understood."
"Good. The question is: Do you like younger kids and if you do in what way or ways?"
Braeden started to answer then stopped
"Just be honest with me Bray."
Braeden looked up at the roof of his car and exhaled loudly. When he turned back to face Cinder he looked a bit pale. "I like kids, I like them a lot... I have had a kid or kids at my place dozens of times... I like to look..." He blushed badly, "But I've never gone past looking and if I had a camera, I'd probably have a pic or two. I lived out here for five years, man. It ain't pretty and it ain't right for any kid. Before I got a job and a roach infested apartment to call mine, I..." His voice trailed off as he blinked out a couple of tears.
Cinder reached in and patted Bray on the shoulder. "I know that had to be hard, damned hard. I'm proud of you."
Confusion flickered across Braeden's face. "Seriously?"
"Yeah." Cinder responded with a hard nod and firm voice. "Truth is a bitch, and you just gave it to me. It also proved to me I can make you an offer I don't think you'll want to refuse."
Braeden looked over Cinder in almost the exact same way Drake had earlier in the night, trying to find any kind of deception on the man's face or in his voice, only this time the look was even harder and more street hardened. Yet the teen ended up coming to the same conclusion Drake had. For some reason he decided to put forward a bit of trust. "I'm listening."
"First off, I want you to really listen. No questions until I am done. Understood?"
"I'm with you."
"Perfect." Cinder took a moment to size up the sixteen year old one more time. The kid was smart, honest, tempered by the streets, and was as drug free as all of Cinder's senses could determine. There was no smell of alcohol, no tell tale shakes, the pupils were normal, eyes not blood shot, voice was even, body was washed and cared for, although the hair could use a washing, and the taste of the air around the kid was free of any free of any harder drugs. "I want you to come live with me and help me take care of Drake."
Cinder held up his hand stopping a response. "Hear me out Bray."
Braeden started to shake his head and speak but stopped and nodded for Cinder to continue.
"I know this sounds about as bizarre as it could possible get, but there are far odder things out there in the world and I can help you not only see them but use them and protect yourself from them, but more on this later.
"The truth is, I know jack about kids. I don't even know if I am good with them. Hell, I don't even know if I like them. I am a loner of sorts even within my own rather eclectic kind. I also have some things going... things I cannot stop doing until I get an answer or it kills me... These.... Um... undertakings take me out of town for days at a time and if I get a major lead, I can be gone for weeks.
"What I do and what I am after is way too dangerous for Drake, but I'm stuck with him. My Spirit..." Cinder cringed not wanting to freak the kid out or give a human too much information but he had to be as honest with Bray as the teen had been with him so he pushed on. "My Spirit would never let me abandon Drake. He was given to me with his dying mother's last breath and she had all the paperwork on her. She was not out to rent her son tonight. She was out there to sell him, as in permanently. I stopped it and she told me Drake was mine. So, like it or not, want it or not, he is mine and I must protect him with every fiber in my body.
"The problem is, I can't do this alone, not while I still have the quest before me. If you agree I can do much for you. I can fix your car. I can aid you financially. I can provide free lodging. I can help you finish school so you have a real shot at making some sort of real future for yourself. I can even offer you a home, a real home if you want one. There are even things I can show you that will change your whole perception of the world you now blindly walk in.
"For your part, if you say yes, you will have to put aside any lust you may have or might get for Drake and become his brother and often times his care giver. You will have to be there for him when I am not and sometimes even when I am around. I cannot let you harm a child. If you find the lust being too much, we will figure out something, but no matter what, it must never be directed at Drake. Just as importantly, you must not kill any human unless you are defending yourself or another. If you agree, you will learn things about the world you thought were nothing more than myths and fairy tales. For, fortunately or unfortunately, neither Drake nor I are what we appear."
Braeden's brow wrinkled as he once again studied Cinder. After nearly a minute he raised an eyebrow, "You know some of what you just said is just plain creepy, right?"
"Yes." Cinder nodded, "and it's all true."
"I'm not saying yes, but let me play along for a few, OK?"
"Only fair." Cinder gestured with his arm and hand for the skeptical teen to continue.
The left side of Braeden's face scrunched into a deep frown while the right side had more of a bemused yet thoughtful grimace. "Let's just say I do say yes. What would happen to me if I did something to the kid?"
"I'd rip your arms off and beat you to death with them before you bled to death."
The tone of voice coupled with the look was something so forceful, so sinister, so powerful it actually caused Braeden to reach down and grab his crotch to prevent pissing himself. His voice quaked, "Holy shit, man, I was just asking..."
"And I am telling you exactly what would happen."
Braeden had to use his hand to push his jaw closed. It took him a few more seconds before he could find his voice or move his jaw again. "Son of a bitch! You realize I should just like start my car and get the fuck out of here right now, don't you?"
"An average human probably would." Cinder responded with a bit of a smirking grin, "But you aren't average. You are way better than any human I have met in the past nineteen years. You have an inner fire, a spark that has all but died in this society. In simple terms, I believe you have more promise than any human currently living in this town, probably this county, and maybe even in this state."
Braeden lowered his head and wrapped his hands around the back of his head, all but covering his face with his forearms. He stayed this way for almost two minutes. Finally his head came up and his hands dropped to his side and formed fists. "This is about as fucking crazy as it gets but part of me wants to believe you. Can you show me anything... I mean you talk about showing me stuff I have not seen..." He paused and trend to look back into cinder's eyes, "Look, man, I survived the last five plus years by learning to read the street. I have seen lots of crap and can tell you when bad shit is about to go down. I stay off the dope and the booze so my mind can stay sharp. I miss nothing and pride myself in it. If you can prove to me there is something else out there..."
Cinder chewed on the inside of his lip as he gave it some thought. "If I do, will your answer be yes?"
"Only if you agree to continue to show me more."
"Alright..." Cinder nodded as he looked toward the stars. "How much of your reality do you want shattered tonight?"
"Fuck... I'm not sure how to answer... but if you really want me to say yes, then it better be pretty big."
Cinder shrugged and moved around to the passenger door. As he pulled it open he looked in the back. "First we go to my place and get this shit put away, then we hunt. Tonight you watch and keep your mouth tightly shut. You don't want to draw any attention to yourself. You are not even close to ready."
Cinder's whole body and tone hardened "Yes."
Cinder remained silent, simply pointing where to turn until they pulled into his driveway. "Park the car inside. After we unload we take the bike. You're car will not fit where we are going."
Braeden did as he was told and helped pull everything out of the car. As he entered the living room, he watched as Cinder checked on the boy, laid out the clothing and left a note simply saying 'if you wake before I get back stay inside. I will be back soon.'
Cinder gave Braeden a single hard nod and pointed to the garage. Once there, he looked over the teen and made a snap decision. "Do you know how to shoot?"
"Well, I've fired a pistol a few times... but never at somebody..."
"Nice to know, but you won't be shooting at somebody so we are good. Do you know how to knock the brass out of a revolver and reload?"
This time Braeden's shoulders dropped and his whole expression turned a bit sarcastic. "Give me a little credit, would ya? I did grow up on the streets..."
"Just making sure." Cinder chuckled as tossed the kid the .38 he picked from earlier in the night. "It is safetied now, so it only has five rounds in it. He then dug in an upper cabinet and pulled out a box of .38 ammo and underhanded it. "There's another twenty-four rounds. I looked it over. It's in decent shape and I cleaned and oiled it. Stick it in the jacket pocked of your gun hand and put the bullets in the other. I don't think they will need to go any further then the pockets, but since I am bringing you into this I need to give you something to fight with. If you end up having to use it, don't shoot me. I get real pissed when I get shot and my temper may get the best of me."
Braeden frowned while giving the weapon a once over. The very fact the guy had given him a gun was really weirding him out, but there was something about the guy. He couldn't put a finger on it. Then there were the words he used; they were carefully chosen and clearly held some kind of other semi-hidden meaning, a meaning Braeden really wanted to unlock. Still, the last statement kind of irked the teen. "What? You bullet proof or something?"
"No, they hurt, they hurt bad. Should I ever get shot when you are around, do yourself a favor; back the fuck away and let me do my thing. It's about the only thing capable of really setting me off into a rage and when me or others like me rage it ain't pretty. If you are the one who shot me... well, don't fucking shoot me."
Cinder's demeanor once again turned a bit dark as he turned and stared straight into, almost through, Braeden. "I have not told you a single falsehood tonight, not one. My Spirit may allow dishonesty but does not like outright lies, so I avoid them unless I can find no other choice. The last outright lie I told was just over six years ago, and I have every intention of making it a full seven without another one. My words may deflect a degree of truth, but the truth can almost always be found in them if you look hard enough."
Braeden held up both hands as if trying to protect himself from not only the words but also the truly disturbing stare. "Fine, I got ya."
"So you still want to do this? There is no shame in saying no. Also understand, once you say yes, there is no more chances to back out."
"Look mister... Cinder... I'm pretty much sacred shitless at the moment, but I want to see what you are going to show me. Part of me has always believed there are things I am missing and that part of me wants to know... needs to know what they are."
"Fair enough." Cinder stated as he pulled a pair of Katana's from behind his large upright tool box and shoved one of the biggest hunting knives Braeden had ever seen into a sheath and strapped it on to his left leg. The longer blades, still in their sheaths, were placed onto the back of a pre-made thick black leather vest which had more than a few patches on it. Finally he pulled out his shoulder rigging and Desert Eagle and adjusted everything.
Cinder glanced at the wide eyed and clearly shocked teen with no real emotion. "On the way there you ride on back. If things go bad and we need to pull out fast, you jump back on and ride in front of me. Hold onto the frame. If for any reason we wreck, land on me so you don't get hurt then run like all of Hell is chasing you."
Cinder jumped on the bike and kick started it. "Because, if I am right about this, at least part of Hell will be chasing you."
Even though he could have sworn his heart skipped a beat and a bit of a cold shiver shot down his spine, Braeden moved up and mounted the bike behind Cinder.
Cinder glanced over his shoulder. "Hold on tight and don't throw up on me." Without further warning he gunned the engine and all but launched out of the garage, slowing just long enough to make sure battery backup had enough charge to close the garage when he pressed his remote. About ten seconds later the big Harley was up to sixty miles an hour and still gaining speed.
Several things caught Braeden's notice as he hung on for dear life on the back of the rocketing bike. The first was, it didn't sound like a Harley at all. The engine was ultra quiet. The second was the guy driving it was not using the headlight, yet seemed to have no problem seeing on the pitch black streets while going at break neck speeds. Finally, and by far the most terrifying was the fact Cinder was doing all of this with one hand on the bars while his other hand rested on his pistol grip.
Less than five minutes and eight miles passed before Cinder slowed a tad and took the bike down a steep embankment, going airborne for a few feet as he did so. He then angled straight for an opening to the sewer system running underneath a large overpass. Finally, after over a minute he slowed considerably and flipped on the headlight. "OK, there are a couple of LED mini flash lights in the left side bag and a big one in the right. Grab one of the small ones and put it in your pants pocket as a backup and hold on to the big one. If worse comes to worse it'll make a good club."
"What about you."
"I can see."
Cinder flipped off the light plunging them into total darkness and increased speed and even made a sharp turn into an offshoot tunnel to make his point, "I said I can see."
Braeden started trembling, "Son of a bitch! Oh shit... Shit... SHIT! OK, OK... turn on the fuckin' light man!"
Cinder gave a single snort as he flipped on the light. "I told you, I don't lie."
"Mother of mercy, don't do that again. I damned near pissed myself!"
A bit of a smile played across Cinder's lips, but he remained silent. Another five minutes passed before he slowed further as his sense of smell picked up something he didn't expect to find. Suddenly, the figure of a boy stepped out of a side passage looking for all the world as if he was ready to fight. Cinder slammed on the brake and slammed the kickstand down "What the fuck?"
The boy's shoulders dropped and his fists unclenched as he looked up in some surprise, "Shadow Sabre... What are you doing down here..." The boy paused and half gasped as he stared at Braeden. "And what are you doing bringing a squishy with you?"
"Razor Wolf... what brings you and your pack down here this fine early morning."
"Who says I have my pack with me, Shadow Sabre."
"My nose, and stick to Shadow or Cinder. Even as young as you are you should know my rep. I hate formalities."
The tweleve to thirteen year old frowned, "You can't even use your full spirit name past the initial greeting; you really are a vagabond. You know you would be a much higher rank if you would drop the attitude, right?"
"I don't need rank for what I do Razor."
"Well, if you are going to butcher my spirit name, just stick to my given name, OK?"
"Fine with me Todd. So what are you all doing down here?"
"Hunting? You're a war pack! You don't need to come down here for a couple of Hell Hounds..."
"Hell Hounds? I don't know anything about Hell Hounds. We are down here for the Troll, maybe even two."
"Troll... no... Hell Hounds... I have been following their moments for a couple of weeks now... I'm sure of it. The manhole covers were burned on the bottom. I saw it with my own eyes."
"Then we have a bigger problem than we thought, Cinder, because we took out a pair of Troll larvae yesterday and tracked the slime trail to the other side of this passage, but the storms over the last few days washed out the older ones and the big blow tonight took out the rest. This ain't no place for a squishy..."
The boy's words were interrupted as a tremendously loud warbling howl cascaded down the tunnel, washing over all three of them like a tidal wave. It was quickly flowed up by and a sickening splattering sound came from very close by. Todd turned and bolted down the tunnel, "Kenny!"
"Fuck!" Cinder roared, "That was a war call! Bray, stay behind me, but stay close, and whatever you do, if it looks anything even vaguely resembling a dog, no matter how big or how nasty, don't shoot at it unless it breaths fire! If it's a dog and not breathing fire it's on our side!" He didn't wait as he ducked down and entered the side tunnel at a dead run.
Braeden, for his part, watched the truly bizarre exchange of words between Cinder and the young boy with bewildered eyes. The whole thing was so strange, so crazy... it had to have been a set up. The only problem was, the kid didn't need any light to see, and... well it was totally insane... Hell Hounds... Trolls... spirit names... being looked at by a little punk kid and called a squishy? It was almost too much. The sudden howl, however... that was not something made up or staged and his heart knew it.
The sound was too real, too angry, too... otherworldly... to be faked. The second sound was just as bad, only in a totally different way. It was disgusting, but he didn't even know why. All he knew is the best chance he had of seeing the sun come up was to do exactly what he was told. He grabbed the flashlight, flipped it on and sprinted to catch up to Cinder. As he did so, he realized the small boy was moving on all fours so fast down the rounded tunnel he almost looked like some kind of four legged animal.
A few seconds later he turned a corner and realized there was light, only it was in no way normal. A blood red glow could be seen pulsing from a suspended diamond shaped thing. Below it, a massive but sickly looking tree grew up out of the cracked concrete and a half dozen flaming dogs circled it. Making the scene even more horrifying was what was inside the tree. There were growths, kind of resembling cages, at least half a dozen on his side alone, and each one held a person. Most looked dead, but at least one was not, the figure was jerking as the woody vines of the tree slowly moved around him, as if trying to feed on him. On the far side, a massive clawed hyena looking thing was smashing a black and green skinned, long armed kind of humanish shaped thing into the ground over and over while an even larger Hyena was in the process of pulling one of the flaming dogs in half with its claws.
In front of Braeden, Cinder drew both Katana's and moved with startling prowess. He leapt on the nearest flaming dog, crossed the blades and pulled taking the head off in one spectacularly vicious yet clean maneuver. At the same time he looked at another small boy, this one probably no more than ten or eleven. "Black Death, back off and protect the boy! I have rank! I'm taking the lead here!"
Cinder spun to the side as another flaming dog tried to pounce on him. This proved to be a fatal mistake on the Hell Hound's part as Cinder used his left blade to gut the beast from neck to an indentation where a tail of a normal dog would have been while it was still in the air. "Razor this is your pack and you know them. Give me one to help with the Hell Hounds. You take the last Troll on the far side and call for help if you need it. Assign the rest to take the out the totem! It has to die before it kills those still alive and brings more to its defense!"
Todd turned and nodded. "You heard him guys! Tommy, you're with Cinder on the mutts. Zac don't let anything happen to Cinder's squishy. The rest of you make splinters out of that bastard!"
Braeden felt his jaw drop as the cute little kid he had seen in the tunnel seemed to suddenly explode outward. The boy's whole body expanded in a truly nauseating way. The skull flattened while the nose and mouth pushed forward. At the same time, the boy's feet and legs folded outward then turned, forming back canine legs. The arms and torso were equally grotesque as they shifted to something akin to an upright dog. Only this dog had massive claws and walked upright, although walked wasn't really the right word. The problem was, he was not sure what the right word was. "Holy fuck!"
Zac, a truly adorable looking boy quickly jumped up and stood in front of Braeden as the creature formally known as Todd, tossed a flaming dog over to Cinder, who was only too happy to cut it in half while it sailed over his head.
Zac glance up with a cutest of smiles. "Stay behind me. This is about to get real ugly. The Totem isn't going to fall without a fight, and it has to die if we are going to destroy this hive."
"But.. but... your just a..." He voice seemed to get caught in his throat as he saw one of the fire dogs move behind one of the hyenas and breathe a cone fire into its back. Instinct took over he pulled out the .38 and fired putting a pair of bullets into the vile thing's side. It didn't get so much as a chance to squeal as Cinder rolled under the fire breath of one he had just wounded and finished off the one Braeden had just shot while positioning himself to protect the injured Hyena looking creature. With the katana in his right hand, he sliced the throat of the one he had injured before it could recover.
Zac looked back with a slightly impressed grin. "Nice shooting, my pack will have to owe you. But as you were trying to say, I'm a kid. Yes, but only sometimes." He shrugged and jumped to the side while pushing Braeden further back. At the same time he wagged his finger as a massive salamander looking thing leapt out of an open gash in the tree created by one of the other hyena looking things below and moved toward Braeden. "Sorry, this human was given to me to protect. I can't let you have him. You know, you don't have to make ME kill you." A bit of a smirk crossed the angelic face. "I really don't want to spill your blood on this human."
It reared up and hissed.
"Ah crap." Zac sighed. An instant later he too transformed. Before the nasty looking upright salamander could so much as try to dodge, the formally adorable boy's right hand claws were buried into the salamander's eyes and tips came out the back of its head.
Below, Todd let out his own war call as he slammed his claws into another long armed green and red skinned thing. The claws then pulled exposing the ribcage. He then hopped up, using his back left leg to shred the bones of the ribs. Finally his tail shot between his legs, wrapped around the pulsing heart and pulled it out. The whole attack took less than three seconds.
A few seconds later the tree made a cracking sound and started to fall. Once it finally crashed to the ground, the red glow hovering over it flickered a few times, let out a high pitched scream and faded out.
Cinder plunged his hunting knife into the last Hell Hound's skull and twisted a few times for good measure. He scanned the area looking for more threats before pulling out the blade and wiping it on the hide of the dead monster. At the same time he pulled out a lighter and tossed it on the one of the branches of the now toppled tree. "Well done, all of you. Razor Wolf, find any survivors and get them out of the tree before you burn the rest. No part of this must survive."
Zac was first to transform back. As he did so he stood naked for a few seconds before the tattoo on his left shoulder flared and blanketed him in what he had been wearing before the battle. "Shadow Sabre, Ryha?"
Cinder turned and gave the boy a hint of a smile, "You did very well Black Death. You should be proud. Did you have a question?"
"Yes Ryha ... Why did you use knives?"
"Did they work?"
"Yes Ryha." Zac nodded with a degree of awe. "You took out four of them by yourself and assisted on two others as a human. You are amazing!"
Cinder snickered. "You just answered your own question. I am good with blades and it is a much better workout to do things this way. Besides, I trusted you and your pack mates would have my back." He then turned to Todd. "I will make sure the elders hear of this. Your pack deserves full credit."
"No, Ryha..." Todd tried to argue, "You took command. This is your victory!"
"Razor Wolf, I came to find Hell Hounds and show my human friend there is more to this world than he knows. Furthermore, I had to pull one of your pack members out of the fight to protect him. "This is your victory, your pack's success. If you want to let others know I was here and helped fine, but I will point out I was nothing more than human and didn't take down the totem or a troll, you all did."
Todd cocked his head to the side. "But those were your orders..."
"And you followed them well. Take the credit due you."
Todd pointed for Zac to help get one of the surviving humans out of the now dead tree then looked up into Cinder's eyes. "You... Your orders... they were to make sure we could have this victory without you taking credit! You have done this before and the council has no idea just how much you have done, do they?"
Cinder winked at Todd while giving him the quickest of smiles. Finally he cleared his throat to get everyone's attention. "Now if you all don't mind I think I need to get Braeden out of here. He looks a bit overwhelmed at the moment. Besides, you all look like you could use some down time to patch yourself up. The only one without some injury is Razor Wolf."
Todd nodded, realizing the man standing before him should not be looked at as some kind of outcast at all. If anything, his rank, his position within the clans, was way too low. Yet, it was obvious even to a thirteen year old that was how Cinder wanted it. "He did well for a squishy. He didn't pass out and even shot one of the Hell Hounds to protect one of my pack. You pick your human friends well Shadow Sabre. We are in your debt. You need but to call to get our aid."