Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Tooth and Claw: Tail of the Scorpion, part one

Prologue, Three Pair of Eyes, part three

Saturday, July 7th, 2012

                Tonight’s the night.  Elias can feel it in his bones as his very own moon shines down on him.  They have been hunting the fugue in the desert, closing in around it like a noose, for over two weeks – but tonight, it all comes to an end.
                For its part, the fugue has led them on quite a chase.  When the moonkin found that it was coming from the West, the fugue would change its route into town, striking at the outskirts from unexpected directions.  It knew it was both predator and prey, and the inchoate streams of fused consciousness all agreed that this was the way to strike back at the invading dragon and its bastard half-breed children:  corrupt their own flock, raise a small army, and bring them to the crater to finish what was started under the eclipse.
                And so the fugue had struck, swiftly and decisively.  The dog who had chased it was able to fight against its venom, but not very well or for very long.  These mortals, on the other hand, stood absolutely no chance.  The rage and chaos it pumped into their hearts was more than a match for the veneer of civility that their culture had been able to lay down over their more primitive instincts, and so the fugue injected itself into its hosts, then devoured their spirits from the inside, and took over their bodies.  It was taxing work, and the fugue had to recover for several hours after each strike frayed at the edges of its being, leaving fragments of itself behind at the scene of every crime.  The mortal hosts were weak, too, and collapsed in the desert after only a short time without food or water.
                But the fugue was crafty, and some strands of its multifaceted mind knew how to coax water spirits out of the earth and the plants; others were able to find shelter for the hosts, to stop them drying out during the day; and just one of the humans would provide enough meat to keep several of the others going for a few additional days.  There was a critical size beyond which the fugue knew it could not grow – the army would soon eat itself faster than it could be replenished by the fugue’s solitary sojourns into the human city.  That would have to be enough:  then they would storm the dragon’s crater and strike at the invader once again.
                Elias was seeing all these things with his own eyes for the first time:  the murders, the aftermath of spiritual mischief, the cannibalism.  At one level, it sickened him, made him want to run screaming into the distance and never return, made him want to crack and block it all out.  But another, deeper part of him was steeled despite the horror:  this was what he was fighting against, this was what he was trying to stop, this was what made his life as moonkin important.  He had to be able to look the horror full-on in the face, and not turn away from it, but master it – he could not grow so soft as to find it unbearable, nor so hard as to be inured to it, but instead do the most difficult thing of all and work against it without succumbing to it.  The tension between those two ends was the very balance he was tasked with preserving as a child of the Moon.
                Nowhere was the importance of this balance more evident than in Tajo.  The old man was somehow able to divine the rogue spirit’s state of mind and intentions from faint clues left scattered at sites abandoned by the fugue and its army.  They could not hope to stake out anything like a permanent camp – the fugue never came back to the same place twice.  But Tajo knew the ways of the spirits, he knew what to look for, and he knew when something was wrong or out of place.  A pile of human bones, bloodstains, and viscera was clearly “wrong or out of place” to Elias’ eyes, but where Elias saw only carnage and depravity, Tajo saw a plan unfolding, almost like the old man was reading the damned thing’s diary.  He was dispassionate enough to gaze unflinching into the abyss even as it gazed back, but still in-touch enough to know what he ought to do about it all.
                Uma, as was her custom, had watched on as her teacher scrutinized each new place the creature had stopped to rest.  She followed his eyes to see what he saw, and let his words sink in rather than try to find her own.  She had managed to find new crime scenes in town with her modified phone, and each place, every night, had been sickeningly the same:  clearly the work of the fugue (to Uma’s prying eyes), with no survivors left behind.  By the time the pack made their way to the scene, though, the trail had grown cold over concrete and asphalt.  They would cast about until the wee hours as wolves, stabbing vaguely Westward, howling at the Moon to alert the others whenever they found something and picking up the trail from there.  But always they would come to some burrow, some pipe, some hole in the ground where they would be forced to proceed at a crawl in single-file were they to pursue, presenting an easy target to any sedan-sized scorpions waiting in ambush.  So they double-backed, recovered their clothes and other possessions they couldn’t carry in canine form, and parted ways to prepare for the next day.
                They simply didn’t have the numbers to scour the desert between Winslow and Barringer Crater – there was too much ground to cover.  But after failing to catch it night after night, after getting closer and closer, after several times finding a half-eaten corpse only to discover that another victim had just been claimed back in town, Elias’ gut told him that it would all be coming to a head tonight, under his own moon, the very moon which had belonged to Rufio before him.
                The crater looms in the distance as the smell hits him:  blood and feces, carried on a sudden breeze.  Moments ago, he was just barely able to make out the blurred shadow of the chain-link fence in the shimmering heat; but the sun is now extinguished.  The pack slows their run to a jog, fanning out and looking for signs of their quarry as they follow their noses.
                As they crest the edge of a wide dry wash, the scene spreads out before them in the gathering darkness:  nearly a dozen humanoid figures, caked with dust and blood, picking over the corpse of one of their fallen brethren as the fugue watches over them from the Wild.  They cannot see very well across the veil separating the Inside from the Outside of the world, but they can feel the fugue’s presence and its gaze upon them.  There is a moment of impasse as neither side is sure of what to do – both knew that this moment would come, but neither expected it at this very second.  Then Carter waves to his pack, says, “C’mon,” and steps Inside.
                Elias rolls his shoulders around, stretching a little as he lets his spirit form take on a more warlike appearance:  his skin thickens and his body hair grows thicker; his muscles bulge as he taps into the white-hot core of his being; flesh blends with spirit as spectral claws extend from his fingertips.  The others move forward as they, too, go through the fearsome changes, cautiously approaching the edge of the dry wash as their enemies still stand immobilized.  Here in the Wild, they too have taken on a more nightmarish aspect:  no longer mundane humans emaciated by days in the desert, their bodies are little more than desiccated husks for the teeming swarms of crawling things that skitter to and fro beneath their skin.  A leader of sorts emerges, standing above the rest and moving forward as they rise behind him.  He hisses and snarls as scorpions crawl from his mouth; his arms twitch as barbs erupt from his knuckles.  The others proceed behind him, fanning out in a jerking gait as they emulate his transformations, while the fugue itself advances behind its vanguard.
                Not wanting to lose the initiative, Carter dives over the edge before the hive-beasts can crowd them out of the dry wash.  The pack follows without question, taking up a tight formation after regaining their footing.  With a mighty roar, he leaps to close the last few paces, striking at the head of the fugue’s small army.
                The battle is over in less than a minute:  the hive-beasts begin to close ranks around the alpha werewolf, seeking to swallow him with their superior numbers, but Willy pounces on one of the first responders to the right.  Pinning the writhing man to the ground, one swipe of Willy’s mighty claws tears away most of his throat; on the backstroke, Willy severs the head completely.
                As soon as Willy has engaged with his target, Uma leaps into the fray, tackling the next hive-beast behind Willy’s mark.  Elias follows her; and Tajo, him.  As Carter rolls away from the advancing left side, the right almost completely destroyed at a single stroke of the pack’s collective might, the fugue joins the battle.  But Tajo spots the advance, and briefly disengages with his target:  channeling Father Dragon, the grizzled werewolf roars as he breathes a gout of spectral fire into the cooling night air.  The blast of heat, light, and sound dazes the herd of hive-beasts; Elias is momentarily taken off-guard, but when another of the swarming husks advances on him, he regains his composure.  Snapping the neck of the monster he has pinned to the ground, Elias sweeps the legs from beneath his latest assailant, then pounces on him in earnest, careful to avoid the barbs breaking through its skin.
                When Elias rises to his feet again, he sees that the fugue’s little army is almost half gone, their numbers very nearly even.  He circles the battlefield, looking for an opportunity to engage.  Carter has engaged the fugue, his spectral form blazing white in the modest twilight.  Willy, dark and ephemeral, darts with fluid grace through the shadows and takes down one of the hive-beasts at the rear who seemed to be trying to flank them.  Uma fights with a balanced cadence, keeping three targets at bay as she prepares for a decisive blow.  Tajo comes up to Uma’s right flank after dispatching another opponent – she dodges a blow from her left, and the one on her right moves in.  Tajo clasps his hands together, and just as the hive-beast commits to the strike, the old man’s fists rise upward in a smooth arc, catching his target square in the jaw with the force of a sledgehammer.  Elias pounces on the first assailant, on the left, before he can strike at Uma again; she takes the opportunity to finish off the one in the middle by diving through his ankles, then rolling around to pounce on his exposed back, wrenching his skull free from his spine with one of her feet planted beneath his shoulders.
                Tajo moves to back up Carter while the other three engage the stragglers.  The leaders circle each other cautiously, dodging and feinting, both aware of the dead zone between them and the consequences for a failed assault.  When the fugue notices that the elder shaman has joined the fight, it widens the gap, snapping at them both in alternation with its enormous pincers.  Both werewolves know that the spectral claws, even while semi-transparent, are fully capable of separating a person’s upper body from lower with a single strike.  Tajo sees the many-spirits-in-one, the lesser forms racing about in terror even as they are contained within the greater.  He decides to draw their attention to a single point, and burns the last bit of his soul that he can without seriously weakening himself to breathe fire once more.  The diversion works:  the fugue raises its right claw to deflect the flames, turning its body away from the pack alpha just a hair.
                Carter moves in, grabbing the fugue’s flailing left arm and wrenching it back over the creature’s carapace.  The others, having dispatched the last of the herd, rush to engage:  Willy grabs the creature’s tail just beneath the bulge of its venom sac, wrapping his arms and legs around the flailing appendage and arching his spine back with all his strength to prevent the wicked barb from striking.  Elias wraps both his arms around the creature’s right claw, still warm from Tajo’s blazing display, and sincerely hopes that giant spectral scorpion claws work on the same principles as a lobster’s claws or an alligator’s jaws.  Uma sees that Willy, despite his weight, is being swung around in slow arcs by the creatures mighty tail; she leaps in at Willy’s feet, adding her own weight, and Willy falls slowly but decisively to the ground as the scorpion’s strength finally fails it.
                With a mighty roar, Carter tears the arm free of the beast and casts it aside.  Reaching into the wound, he spreads it with both hands, tearing it apart as the fugue’s remaining legs writhe in silent agony.  As the raging abomination’s structural integrity fails, so its fused consciousness begins to disaggregate, and the creature’s dying thoughts are torn in what seem to be a thousand different directions as they wither and dissolve.  The moonkin grab what they can, feasting on the dying spirits to restore their depleted strength, Tajo taking quite a bit more than the others.
                After the victorious feast, the pack raise primal howls to the Moon shining above.  Their communion is interrupted by a human shout:
                “Freeze!”
                Elias looks up to see a woman on the edge of the dry wash, a pistol held in both hands, her eyes blazing a ghostly blue in the night.
                Wait a sec, he thinks, realizing that they are still in the Wild.  How can she see us?

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