Undead Chaos, page 27
“Crap,” I replied, reluctantly setting it down. I also emptied my pockets of the magazines. Hitching my sword tight upon my back, I slipped the other weapon into my arms.
“Is that a paintball gun?” my father asked.
I grinned. “Trust me, these will sting.”
He gave me a sideways glance, but chose not to press the issue. “Okay, let’s move.”
We jogged toward the tree line, avoiding the occasional Quaos agent as they raced past. We punched into the forest and were instantly enveloped by the thickness of the brush. I vaulted over a fallen tree and shoved through a particularly large fern. Bugs buzzed around me, and I wondered how I’d ever thought playing in the woods was fun.
“So what we’re going up against?” Quinn asked in a low voice.
“Something I’m all-too-familiar with,” I replied as we came upon the intruder. It was entangled in the enchanted roots and bushes that served as part of the security system.
“Oh my,” Quinn said, sliding to a halt. “That’s huge.”
The Hellcat, a half mortal, half demon beast, was larger than a lion and completely engulfed in flames. Its paws were like truck tires and its eyes black as coal. Lava-like saliva dripped from its gigantic mouth, and its roars shook the ground. It slashed and snapped at the magical entrapments, ripping wood and flora with each swipe.
My father glowered at the beast. “I sense no signs of weakness from penetrating our perimeter.”
Quinn swallowed. “That’s not good.”
“No,” he replied. “It’s not.”
“I should have peed before we left,” I muttered, absently rubbing the scar on my neck.
Dad ignored me. Instead, he reached toward the beast with an open hand and slowly closed his fingers. The surrounding branches and bushes bent to his command, entangling the Hellcat even more.
“Attention, demon,” he called in a magically amplified voice. “You have crossed onto personal land without the consent of the occupants. This is a violation of one of the oldest treaties between our kinds. You are not welcome here, and I command you to be gone.”
The Hellcat paused and slowly turned its gaze at my father. The only movement was the flicking of its tail from side to side. Flames trailed in its wake.
“I say again, you are not welcome. Return from whence you came!”
“No,” the beast growled. It was a deep, unholy sound that caused my skin to crawl.
“Did that thing just speak?” Quinn asked in a hushed voice.
There was a crunching noise behind us, and I turned to see my mother and three guards stomping through the brush. My father gave them several motions with his hand and the men took cover behind fallen trees, training their high-powered cannons on the Hellcat.
Mom trotted over to us, the blade of her katana shining in the filtered sunlight. She regarded the beast with cool determination.
“A Hellcat, eh?” she asked, ready to slice and dice the kitty. “A large one too.”
“And conversant,” I added.
“It spoke,” my father said quietly, keeping his focus on the Hellcat.
Mom glanced from her husband to the entangled animal and back with wide eyes. “I’ve never even heard of that before. What should we do?”
Dad glared at the beast. “We kill it.”
“I think not,” the Hellcat replied with a low, hollow chuckle.
It roared and the flames expanded from its body in all directions, cooking the plants that held it. It shook back and forth several times before finally freeing itself from the entangling branches. It crouched, then launched at us with a growl.
The Hellcat was fast, but Dad snapped his hands sideways. Branches caught his target in flight. There was an explosion of fire, and the beast twisted in midair. It landed on all fours, then spun to face us.
My father made a motion and the guards opened fire. Bullets designed to take down unholy beings thumped into the flaming hide, forcing the Hellcat to stagger back several steps. It roared, dug its claws into the ground, and leaped again.
This time Dad shoved his hands toward it, muttering under his breath. A blast of wind rocketed toward the demon-kitty, halting its forward momentum. It dropped to the ground once again. Before it could recover, Dad yanked his hands skyward. A column of solid air hit the Hellcat from below, lifting it into the trees. The guards continued to pump rounds into the beast, which snarled and hissed with pain and rage as its flaming blood fell to the earth.
“Angela, Marcus, now!” Dad said as he flipped the beast over in the air. Mom raised her sword high and the clouds overhead swirled and darkened. They sizzled and popped as a bolt of lightning arced down. The second it hit her blade, she swung it in the direction of our target. The energy streaked across the distance in an instant, blasting the animal with raw, unfiltered power.
The Hellcat screamed and flailed as electricity danced across its flaming hide.
I shoved my sword into the ground and touched my Skill just enough to form a spell. Small snowball-sized hunks of dirt rose from the ground and hurtled toward the Hellcat, pelting it from all sides. It might not have been as destructive as my mother’s attack, but combined with the rounds the guards were firing, it sure annoyed the crap out of the animal.
I set the aggravation spell on automatic, aimed the paintball gun at the beast, and squeezed the trigger.
Focal Stones arced toward the Hellcat, slamming into it with random elemental force. Waves of cold water splashed against the hide, vaporizing into clouds of scalding steam on contact. Earth stones transformed into boulder-sized projectiles that hammered the Hellcat without mercy. The only ineffective Focal Stone was fire, which flamed blue for an instant before vanishing inside the burning hide.
Next to me, Quinn machine-gunned spells with surprising speed. She clenched her jaw as bolts of pure energy streaked from her new blade, shredding the Hellcat’s molten flesh.
Mom held her sword high again to call another strike, but the Hellcat belched liquid fire at us. Everyone dove in separate directions, and I could feel the hairs on my arms singe as the flames swept past. There was an agonized cry, and as I scrambled to my knees, I saw the back of one of the guards on fire. He dropped to the ground, rolling to extinguish the flames.
I started toward him, but was interrupted by a loud thump. The ground shook as the Hellcat landed heavily. Then it charged us.
Dad raised his hands, but the Hellcat launched into the air, avoiding the strike. As it landed, a shockwave ripped toward us, catching my father and the remaining two guards head-on. The concussion hurled them a dozen yards into the woods. They plowed through the trees before crashing to the ground with a flash.
Mom cried out and sprinted at the Hellcat. It turned to her, but as it raised its paws again, she jumped. She arced over the beast, twisting her body and shoving the sword down into the flames. The monster howled as the blade sank deep into its hide. Blood like lava exploded from the wound.
Mom landed on the other side and sliced at the Hellcat’s flank. The blade split the flaming meat with another shower of sparks and more blood-fire spurted toward her. She spun, but was unable to avoid being splattering by flames. She screamed, dropped her sword, and slapped a hand against her burning arm.
The Hellcat used the distraction to swipe at her. Its massive paw caught her under the chin with enough force to lift her off the ground.
She flew backward and landed limply among the twisted, blackened branches.
Anger poured into my veins and I squeezed the trigger of the paintball gun until it clicked empty. Fear replaced the fire in my chest and I slowly lowered my weapon. The Hellcat brushed off the last of my elemental fury, then turned to face me.
“Ah, the Shifter child,” it said, hunching low and prowling slowly in my direc
“I have heard of you,” it continued. “You nearly died some years ago at the hands of my kin. There was power at your command back then. Enough to gain our attention.”
The beast snarled and bared its fangs. “But you trod where mortals are forbidden, and to this day, your scent remains. You owe a debt, Shifter Child, one that must be paid by you and you alone.”
I glanced at the motionless form in white leather and felt sick. Images of fallen loved ones filled my thoughts, the horror at their deaths consuming me once again.
How many had died to save me fourteen years ago?
How many more would die today because of my failures?
Tiny fissures formed in the dam that held the years of fear, humiliation and self-loathing. Streams of pent-up emotions leaked through the cracks while doors that I’d kept closed out of shame strained and creaked. Years of bottled feelings collided against my mind with titanic fury until the gates finally burst open.
My heart rate quickened as the deluge of energy long forgotten crashed through me untamed, filling my senses with raw power.
I shook, my body barely able to restrain the Skill that threatened to rush out of me like a hurricane. I dropped the paintball gun, released my hold on the mud-ball spell, and glared at the Hellcat.
The beast cocked its head. “Is that confidence or foolishness I see in your eyes?” it asked, growling with amusement. “I think it is the latter.”
“Such hubris,” it said. “You reek of weakness. Do you honestly think you and your pathetic mate can hurt me?”
I balled my hands into fists as the dam exploded. “Yeah, I do.”
I dropped to my knee and shoved my hands downward. My fists punched into the soft dirt and my arms sank all the way to the elbows. I gripped the earth with my hands and willed the contact between my soul and the powers of that element. The earth responded, giving itself to me in a blast of primal might.
With a snarl that nearly matched that of the Hellcat, I jerked my arms upward and stood. Giant earthen hands tore themselves free from the ground, and the fingers opened in sync with my own. I flexed them once, testing my control.
Then I turned on my enemy.
The Hellcat reared back in surprise. Before it had time to recover, I slammed my hands together. My symbiotic limbs mimicked the move, immediately crushing the Hellcat with bone-shattering force.
The beast shrieked and Quinn unleashed a torrent of destruction. Spells ripped into the flaming skin, and the animal howled with agony.
I enclosed the Hellcat with a dirt hand, and it writhed as I lifted it into the air. The sod-hand boiled as it gripped the flaming creature, but I was barely aware of the reciprocal heat in my own palm. I ignored the pain, crushing the Hellcat tighter before smashing it to the ground. I repeated the process two more times, then dropped the Hellcat.
The creature fell, but twisted to land upright. Upon impact, it slapped its paws against the forest floor. The shockwave shattered several small trees. Dozens of pieces of wooden shrapnel flew at Quinn and me. Quinn ducked behind a trunk, but I remained standing. Chunks of bark and numerous branches rammed into me. One piece tore the muscle in my calf while another glanced off my left bicep. I grunted, but latched onto the pain, redirecting it into my spell. I brought a muddy fist down on the creature’s head, driving it into the ground.
The blow dazed the animal, but it recovered in time to avoid my next fist. It staggered sideways, slashing at the forest in front of it. Trees tore from their roots and sailed toward me at blinding speed. I instinctively covered my face, and the trunks crashed into the earthen hands. The collision sent jarring waves of pain down the bones of my forearms, but the trees fell harmlessly to the ground.
I moved the hands in time to see the Hellcat sailing through the air. It covered the distance between us with frightening speed, swiping a paw as it landed in front of Quinn and me. The brush in front of us exploded in a shower or burning leaves and wood chips. A large fragment clipped Quinn’s head and she fell. The beast paused to watch as she struggled to her knees.
“She dies first,” it said, slashing at her.
Quinn ducked, but the claws sank into the palm of my left dirt-hand as I slid it in front of her. Blisters and blood exploded on my flesh, but the agony only charged me with more power. I swung my right hand overhead, smashing it onto the Hellcat’s back with all my might.
There was a sickening crunch and the beast collapsed to its knees with a shriek.
I yanked my dirt palm from the flaming claws, formed another fist, and pounded the creature again.
The storm within me raged and my pent-up emotions flowed from me with alarming force. Rather than fight it, I opened my senses and allowed it to consume me.
The energy overwhelmed me with an intoxicating explosion of ecstasy. My rage boiled over and I lost myself to the pleasure of finally unleashing the full magnitude of my emotions.
I drove my fists into the beast, smashing it over and over again. Flaming blood spewed from the battered body, scorching the ground. The creature wailed as I pummeled it without mercy.
As the fury of my emotions peaked, I grabbed the Hellcat in both dirt hands and lifted it into the air. There was an explosion deep inside me, and I bellowed as I released all my reserves, twisting and pulling the creature in opposite directions. The Hellcat howled in pain before detonating into a shower of fire and steam as it ripped in two.
Pain erupted behind my eyes as something popped in my sinuses. Blood flowed from my nose once more, cascading down my face. I ignored the metallic taste in my mouth and threw the pieces of the corpse to the ground.
My throat went hoarse as I screamed and pounded the burning piles until they were nothing more than flaming craters of death.
I continued flailing until I could no longer lift my arms. My emotions finally spent, the exhaustion and pain consumed me, and I lost my hold on the earth. The symbiotic limbs collapsed into large mounds of loose dirt. I sank to my knees, curling my hands into my chest as agony washed over me.
Quinn screamed my name, grabbing for me, but she felt and sounded light-years away. I leaned over and vomited into the grass. Blood pooled in front of me along with bile. I heaved two more times, emptying everything I’d eaten that week onto the forest floor.
When I finished I tried to stand, but the world was spinning out of control. Voices shouted all around me, and I was vaguely aware of Quinn running her hands over me. She yelled for me to stay conscious, but I could no more respond than I could do backflips. I fell forward, collapsing to the forest floor.
Then the world went black.
The Radioactive Fallout
I was in limbo, floating somewhere between the living and the dead. Having spent a long time there after my first encounter with a Hellcat, the void was depressingly familiar.
Back then I’d nearly bled out on the marble floor of the Homestead. Healer Jenkins had saved my life utilizing spells and science that were both risky and revolutionary. In the interim between my near death and return to life, I’d been numb as I was suspended in the middle of nowhere.
This time, however, every inch of me hurt. Especially my hands. I flexed them, which sent sharp, nauseating pangs to my brain. The jolt yanked me toward consciousness.
I was vaguely aware of a reddish light and muffled voices in the distance. I could feel the soft mattress of a bed beneath me and could smell herbs and incense in the air.
The voices grew louder as the words began to coalesce into something coherent.
“I’m still amazed,” my father whispered.
“Everyone knew he had it in him,” another familiar voice replied. “He jus
“It’s more than that. The sheer magnitude of the attack was shocking. I’ll grant you the beast was weakened, but the level of destruction Marcus dealt was staggering.”
“You think he tapped into the darkness?”
My father was silent for a moment. “I hope not.”
“Well, no matter what, the fact that he destroyed a Hellcat, and a matron at that, will give people a lot to think about when dealing with him in the future.”
“That thing was a girl?” I croaked. My mouth was dry and tongue thick. I cracked my eyes open. “No wonder it wouldn’t listen to you, Dad.”
My father grinned. Superficial scratches covered his face, but otherwise he was none the worse for wear.
“Good to see you finally awake. How do you feel?”
My hands were wrapped in thick gauze and ached, so I was extra careful as I scooted myself upward with my elbows. I leaned back into the large pillows of the gurney, allowing them to envelop my sore body.
“Well that’s understandable,” said Healer Jenkins, owner of the second voice. “You took quite a beating from the forces of that place.”
“Yeah, I did.” I tried to focus, but the room was still blurry. “How long have I been out?”
Jenkins checked his watch. “Just over a day. Most of your wounds will heal quickly. The damage to your calf muscle is repairing nicely, and the minor cuts will only take a few days. I set your nose, but the swelling will take about a week to diminish. Whatever you did to your wrist has almost completely healed. I did have to re-sew the stitches on your shoulder, but whoever did it earlier knew what they were doing. There will be little to no scarring.”
I looked down at my mummy hands. “What about these?”
“Those will take a while,” he said solemnly. “Most of the burns are second-degree, but thankfully your muscle tissue appears to be healing already. Your left hand suffered the worst of it. Along with the burns, the puncture wounds severed two tendons. I can’t give you an exact time line for recovery, but between medicine, magic and physical therapy, you should recover.”