"Holy Mother," Crowe said to himself.
Sitting crouched under the shadow of a tree, about twenty yards away from Crowe Taylor, and the girl, was a bandit, dressed much like the one Carlos had killed earlier, except this one was not wearing a mask. His face made up for that. It was covered with so many scars and blisters, that there was hardly any untouched skin on his face. He had long, mangy black hair; sharp, pointed canine teeth; a flat nose; and his eyes were glowing a bright yellow, sort of like Luka's were before he left, only the pupils were slit, and far more sinister. A low growl emitted from his throat so loud that Crowe was able to hear it all the way from where he was, even through the sounds of gunfire and occasional gunfire. He didn't have a rifle, although he was carrying several bullets on a bandolier across his waist, and had an empty sidearm holster at his side. Evan figured he might have ditched the guns to allow him to better sneak up on them.
The girl tried standing up again, but Crowe threw out his arm, signaling for her to stay down. Crowe also remained where he was, frozen in both fear and awe, as those yellow eyes were piercing deep into him, as if burrowing into his soul. Crowe did not know how, but he was sure that this man in front of him was a mutant.
He had only seen a handful of mutants in his life before this, and those were either travelling traders who rarely stayed in town for more than a few days, or were dangerous marauders the hunters killed in the woods. He also knew that most mutants had "gifts" that were as varied as the mutants themselves, although he knew psychics, adepts, and element-benders were the most common archetypes.
As was this man before him. Beast-like mutants were more common than most, and rumor was that they could take the form of certain animals. But he could not for the life of him remember their name.
"Skin-walker," the girl said in a quiet voice, as if she read his mind.
The word jarred a memory in his mind that he had from childhood: of the lead hunter telling the children to stay away from the woods because of fear of skin-walker mutants, since they were considered extremely dangerous and unpredictable. He seriously wished he and Taylor remembered that particular lesson before wandering from the settlement today.
All this, Evan was thinking in only a few milliseconds. Thunder rolled many miles away, although Evan was too focused on the creature before him to notice.
The man knelt forward as he growled louder; his slim back arched, his long muscular arms touching the ground in front of him, his yellow eyes narrowed, pointed teeth bared into a wolfish grin, as if the creature was relishing in the thought of another kill. And Crowe was afraid that would be him.
He quickly raised the revolver Luka gave him and aimed it at the man. The gun felt awkward in his hands, as if he was aiming a brick. To steady his aim, he closed one eye, and straightened his firing elbow to give himself a better shot. The revolver still felt awkward, but not as awkward. He took a deep breath to steady his shaking hand. Thunder crashed several miles overhead.
Evan took another deep breath, steeled his heart, cocked the pistol, and tried to steady his aim for the man's head. He had killed plenty of deer and birds before, but never a person, even in a life/death situation like this.
Although this would make a pretty good first time, he thought to himself.
The man's growl grew even louder, his muscles tensed, and the hair on his head stood up, like a hungry dog's. Evan took a sharp inhale through his nose, and firmly pulled the trigger.
"Dammit!" he cursed himself. In all the excitement, he forgot to turn off the weapon's safety feature. Why he didn't do it sooner, or why Luka forgot to do it himself as soon as he handed Evan the gun was beyond him.
The man took the opportunity Evan had given him, and lunged forward, half-yelling, half-howling in the process, covering half the distance in one jump. His hands came back to the ground before his legs did, and as soon as his feet hit the ground, he shifted his weight to his legs, and lunged again. Evan knew he had exactly two seconds before the man was on top of him.
His thumbs were fumbling around the mid-section of the pistol, trying to find the safety switch, but he just couldn't, and in desperation, he threw the gun directly at the charging beast's head.
The gun hit the skin-walker's forehead mid-lunge with a loud thud, and he crashed to the ground shoulder-first. He quickly recovered, getting back to his crouch, shaking off the damage, his yellow eyes glowering at Evan with intense hate.
Great, Evan thought to himself, I have successfully pissed off a dangerous skin-walker mutant.
The man lowered his head, and started growling again, louder than before, curling his lip and baring his fangs into a wide grin-like snarl. Evan did not dare take his eyes off his opponent, but he remembered his friend still on the ground recovering from massive blood loss and an infection, and the girl, who had just woken up after taking several cuts and a venom-infliction.
Most importantly, I want you to guard her with your life, Luka said.
Crowe was not one to go back on his word, and he was not about to let his best friend and this beautiful girl suffer because of his cowardice. He hardened his heart, clenched his fists, and made himself look as threatening as possible, all to keep the creature's attention and hate directed on him, away from them.
He kept eye contact as he sidestepped to the right, making a distance between him and the girl and Taylor, and the creature's eyes never left Crowe's. He slowly took a step back, drawing the man further towards him. He took another step back, only to have his heel get caught on a large tree root in the ground. For half a second, he lost his balance, and in that time, the man lunged again and was upon him.
Crowe felt the man's full weight against him, his hairy hands on his shoulders, his putrid smell, as he hit the ground. He hit his head on a piece of hardwood, and his vision went blurry. In his peripherals, he saw the man's dirty black fingernails grow longer and sharper. His fingers curled back and he sank his nails deep into Crowe's shoulders.
White-hot pain shot into Crowe's head as he screamed aloud. The man's yellow eyes narrowed, his mouth curled into a twisted grin as he sank his nails further into Crowe's flesh. Crowe tried shaking the man off of him, but the more he thrashed, the further he dug his claws into his skin. He had never felt this much pain before in his life. One of his fingers, his right thumb, was dangerously close to Crowe's heart. Crowe screamed louder as the man lowered his head until their noses were barely touching. His toothy grin, as yellow as his eyes, grew even wider as he took a deep whiff of Evan's sweat and his blood, which was now pouring down Crowe's shoulders in small red streams around the man's fingers. Crowe wouldn't have admitted it, but his eyes were shut so tight a tear rolled down his eye.
The man lifted his head back and abruptly ripped his left hand free from Crowe's shoulder and brought it up to the man's face. Evan cried in pain from the removal of the man's hand, which opened the wounds even more.
The skin-walker narrowed a hungry gaze on his hand; the blood soaked around his fingers and nails, and brought it up to his nose, inhaled deeply, and then began to hungrily lick all the blood off his fingers. Crowe was in too much pain to be utterly disgusted.
As he licked his hand clean (or cleaner than it was, at least), his eyes closed, and he sighed with a look of ecstasy on his face. He then opened his slitted eyes and looked down on Crowe. A growling sound emulated from the man's throat, which grew into a stuttered coughing that Crowe interpreted as some kind of laugh. He lowered his head in front of Crowe's again.
"That's good," he half-said, half-growled in a low voice, his wicked smile smeared red. Crowe tried not to meet the man's vicious gaze, but instead his eyes looked at the man's teeth, which were even worse: sharp, crooked, and covered in Crowe's own blood.
He felt his vision starting to fade as he forced himself to stay conscious. He couldn't die like this. Being eaten alive by a mutant, out in the woods with a firefight taking place yards away from him, failing to protect his friend and a girl he swore he would, and all because he couldn't save his own sorry hide. No, he wouldn't die like this.
The man resumed his low, coughing laugh. "You've got the good blood in you. I can only imagine how good the girl must taste." His laughing intensified, as if he relished the idea of actually eating them both.
"I can't wait. But first," he added, "I'm gonna take my time with you." He tightened his grip on Evan's left shoulder.
Just as the man raised his left arm to strike, Crowe felt a strange sensation tugging at the forefront of his mind. Suddenly, everything had slowed down. He didn't notice the pain in his shoulders nearly as much as he had just seconds ago. He also felt a surge of strength shoot into his free arm, strength that was not his.
As the skin-walker brought down his clawed hand to deliver a killing blow, Crowe effortlessly brought up his free arm and blocked the man's strike, his forearm against the man's wrist. He felt the man's arm struggling against his block, but his strength meant little to Crowe; he barely felt his own arm at all. Without any thought on his part, he reflected the man's blow, and then punched the man square in his face.
He must have hit the creature harder than he thought – a lot harder. Blood spurted from the man's nose as he growled loudly in pain. He brought his hand up to his face where Crowe hit him, baring his long, bloodstained teeth in a hard grimace. Evan felt a light twitching feeling in his knuckles, but other than that felt no pain from his punch.
Crowe then felt the sensation in his mind tugging harder as he looked down and saw his right arm on the ground next to his body, his hand desperately grasping for something. Finally his hand found it: a large rock, about the size of a brick, one side smooth, and rough and jagged on the other. As he grasped it by the smooth side and raised it from the ground, he found the rock to be surprisingly weightless in his hand, although he no longer believed he was in control of his arm now.
The skin-walker turned his gaze back to Evan, his yellow eyes filled with rage, his face and hand covered with fresh blood. Crowe's hand gripped the stone tightly, his muscles tensed.
The man opened his mouth wide as his head dove towards Crowe's neck, as if he was going to bite it in half. But just when his head came into range, Crowe's arm threw itself forward, punching him dead in the face with the hard rock. The stone met the man's cheekbones with a loud crunch, and he howled in pain louder than ever. The man swiftly pulled his right arm free of Crowe's other shoulder and brought both his hands to his face to the point of impact.
Crowe took advantage of the man's pain, and he quickly brought his knee to the man's gut, knocking him off his body. He then felt the sensation tugging on his mind further, prompting him to get up. He sat up, then looked down on the man next to him, and without realizing it, he found himself on top of the skin-walker. Their places now reversed.
He felt the sensation lightly tug on his mind now, and he was suddenly filled with so much anger and hate towards this man. He wrapped his free hand around the man's throat, raised the rock in his other hand, and then brought it down to the man's face. He brought it back up, then back down, and continued to pummel his face with it again and again, harder and harder than he thought he was physically able to hit. He kept doing so, until long after the point it was necessary to stop. As he raised the stone again, the sensation in his mind receded, just as suddenly as it had first appeared.
Crowe felt his body screaming in a dozen different places. He dropped the stone and pressed his hands against his temples. Crowe's head felt like it was about to implode. He winced in pain as he could feel his aching pulse in his right hand where he made the punch, his whole arm felt like it was made of lead, and his shoulders felt like they were on fire.
The pain in his head started to lessen slightly though, and when he could bear to open his eyes, he looked down at the skin-walker. His face looked like it was run over by a truck, multiple times. The sight of him, along with the burning pain of his shoulders and the throbbing in his head, and the fact that he had just killed a man, made Evan feel like he was going to throw up. When he could not take the sight anymore, he turned away and placed his fingers against his head, trying to steady the light pounding in his temples. The thunder, muffled sounds of gunfire, and yelling around him didn't do much to help though.
Just then, he felt a hand reach out and touch him on his shoulder. Fresh jolts of pain shot into his head as the hand came very close to wear his cuts were. He turned to see Taylor, either asleep or not Crowe couldn't tell, sitting upright against a different tree not far from the fallen one they were just behind, his hands at his sides. Evan raised his head and saw the blonde girl, who had gotten up and left her sword against the tree, was now crouching beside him, her clean, sleeveless arm stretched out toward him.
He turned his head and looked at her, and she had a look of concern on her face. Just as well, he thought to himself idly; she had just witnessed him mercilessly pound a man's face in with a rock. But right then, she smiled. A light, reassuring smile; the ends of her lips curled up ever so slightly. And her eyes - dear Lord, her eyes. Ocean blue, and focused to the point he felt they were piercing into his mind. The sight of her almost made him forget about the pain in his shoulders and stomach.
Either something was in that medicine Carlos gave her, or she must be a mutant too, he thought to himself. Nobody can heal wounds that fast, have no marks to show for it, and still be that beautiful. Plus, how did she know everything she did about Taylor and her friends? He was wary for a moment. He had just killed one mutant, but he had no desire to kill another, especially her. Besides, even if she did prove hostile, he knew he was in no physical condition to defend himself; he was losing blood, and was still very light-headed from the sudden adrenaline rush he had. But then she said the last thing he expected her to say:
Before he could comment, the girl looked up towards the sky, narrowed her eyes and smiled.
He did not notice it before, but he felt a light drop of water touch his face, then another. He looked upwards, and sure enough, the sky was darkened to a charcoal-grayish black, like it was curtained with a massive blanket of steel wool. A low rumble of thunder rolled in the distance, and the rain picked up even more.
"Yeah," he replied, "Yeah, it is." He thought it was strange, since the hunters at the settlement had not predicted any rain the day before, and they were usually right about their assumptions.
"You're bleeding pretty bad," she told him after seeing the blood on her hand from his shoulder. "Stay here," she went over to the fallen tree and picked up the first-aid kit and brought it over to him. She dug through the bag until she found the bottle of morphine, now half-empty, and several empty syringes. "Come on, where is it?" She kept digging until she found what she was looking for: a syringe of a different color than the rest, and smaller than usual.
"It's not much," she said, "But it'll have to do." Crowe had no idea what she meant by that, but right then she gently put her arm on his shoulder and said, "I need you to lay down."
"Just do it! This'll slow the blood loss and numb the pain, and you don't have much left to lose. Please," she implored, "I can help you." The desperate look on her face told him that she was honest about wanting to help him. A stroke of lightning flashed above. He did what she asked, and laid down, facing away from the dead skin-walker only a few feet away from him. Another shot of pain in his shoulders flared to his head, then gradually died-off. As he lay there, the girl crouched beside him, syringe in hand. She slid his jacket off his shoulders with her free hand, exposing his dirty, blood-saturated t-shirt that used to be white.
"I don't have time to patch you up completely," she said, "But this should be enough to ease the pain, at least a little."
"What is it?" he asked her.
"It's called Oxycosalinol, it's a type of pain-relief and revitalizer. Just don't move." She removed a cap from one end exposing a long needle, and then looked down at Evan.
"Promise you won't freak out on me," she told him, "You get too excited, you'll only hasten the blood flow. That's the last thing we need right now. Also, don't worry; it's clean," she added about the syringe.
" I think I've had enough excitement for one day," Crowe replied. He took a deep breath and calmed his nerves; tried thinking about anything aside from the pain in his head and shoulders.
She quickly inserted the needle into his shoulder next to one of his cuts, causing Evan's head to sting, then pressed down on the plunger and injected the drug. Crowe felt a swelling sensation flow into his head, and a numbing pain shoot into his hands and feet; his vision started getting blurry, and suddenly it was getting harder for him to breathe. In a matter of seconds though, the numbing pain receded, his vision came back, and he wasn't choking for air. All he felt was a strange pulling feeling in his shoulders, as if something were swimming inside his veins and trying to get out.
"What's happening?" Evan asked.
"The drug's fixing your ruptured blood vessels from the inside," the girl said. She kept her hands hovering over his shoulders for a few moments as if to keep him steady, then carefully lowered her arms. Evan could feel his veins pulsing as the fluid rushed through his body. Right then, the rain fell a little harder.
"Think about something to distract your mind from the drug," she told him. "It'll help speed the process and make it all the less painful, trust me." Evan tried thinking about something else, but it was hard to concentrate with all that was going on. He breathed in deep through his nose, closed his eyes, and tried setting his mind on whatever thought crept into his head.
He thought about the drops of rain falling on his face, feeling everyone of them hit his body, on his arms, through his shirt, his jeans. He thought about his friends and adopted family back at the settlement, wondering if he'd ever see any of them again after all this. He thought about Taylor, and how sorry he felt for dragging him into this mess in the first place, who was now lying against a tree, possibly dying of infection and shock.
Most of all, he thought about this girl crouching beside him, how mind-numbingly beautiful she was, and the fact that she and her friends were risking their lives to help keep them out of danger, despite knowing them for all of three minutes.
"Be still," the girl said. She took a deep breath, then placed her hands over temples and closed her eyes tight.
"What are you doing?"
"I have to know what's happening," she said, referring to the fight behind them. She stayed that way for another few seconds, and then finally released her focus, taking slow deep breaths. "Cacas," she said under her breath.
"What is it?" Evan asked.
"They have a Borg," she said, with a faint hint of anxiety in her eyes. Crowe had heard that word before, but he did not know what it was.
"A cyborg! A person with bio-mech implants! And now they're going ar-" She tensed suddenly, then lunged to her left and sprawled for something on the ground. She turned around, laying flat on her back, aiming the revolver that Crowe threw at the skin-walker earlier.
He heard the click of the safety feature turning off, and when he looked to where she was aiming the gun, he saw, coming from their left flank, two of the bandits rushing from around the corner of the rooted tree, rifles raised. The girl fired a round from the pistol, hitting one of them clean through the head. She fired at the second one, hitting him in the lower chest, then again through his heart. The two men crumpled to the wet ground at the same time. The girl rolled over and jumped into a crouch, facing the opposite direction, aimed the revolver and fired at a third assailant just coming from the other side. She hit him square in the neck, causing him to drop his weapon and clutch his throat, wheezing for life as he keeled over.
The girl stayed there, crouched in the rain, eyes shut as she waited for them to try to move again, listening if any more were coming, no sounds but stray gunfire, screams from the other side, and sky-water hitting the ground. When she was sure they were safe, she sprinted to the corpse of the bandit she most-recently killed and picked up his rifle. She also took his ammo bandolier, yanked it right off his body, and slung it over her shoulder, then turned and made her way back to Crowe.
She held the rifle barrel-end up and checked him once over. Crowe looked up at her and saw the bandolier she carried was half-full of rounds far too big for any normal rifle to shoot. He lifted his gaze to the weapon and realized it wasn't a rifle at all; it was a grenade launcher.
"Are you all right?" she asked him. He took his eyes off the gun and tried not thinking about the fact that she had just killed three men in only a few seconds. Evan hadn't noticed it, but his shoulders were feeling much better since she placed that medicine in his shoulders, although the pain in his head hadn't subsided as he was still forcing himself to stay awake. He looked up at her and answered, "Yeah, I think I'm all right."
"Good," she replied curtly. She laid the revolver on the ground next to him (if Evan's math was correct, there should still be two shots left), and then opened the single-shot launcher to check if it was loaded.
"How are the others? Do you know?" he asked her.
She snapped the gun shut then looked at him. She closed her eyes tight, then responded, "Alive. Hurt, but not too badly. You're friend over there is doing better as well. Most of the bandits are down, but that Borg is still up."
"Is that a bad thing?"
"If it fires up its main weapon, then yeah, it could be a very bad thing," she said as she swept her hair over her left shoulder. "It takes some time for that kind of weapon to charge though, so mean time I'm-"
As if just to prove her wrong, a massive rumble and low whirring came from the other side of the tree, like an engine roaring to life. The girl's body tensed as she muttered under her breath "Multo cacas," then dropped her weapon to the ground. She then tucked her head close to her body, and arched her body forward, shielding Evan's body on the ground with hers. He did not understand, but his gut told him to shut his eyes tight and brace himself for anything. The girl's arms were held straight out on the ground and came close to his shoulders, and he felt the drug surging faster through the veins, causing a harsh tingling sensation. He concentrated on that over anything else.
Shortly after the rumbling noise, a crack of thunder boomed from the other side of the tree, and, barely a dozen yards away, a huge arc of pure electricity blasted right through the center of the fallen tree, tearing it clean in two. The arc shot right over Crowe and the girl and into the treetops beyond them, ripping through branches and setting the heads of several trees on fire. Several gunshots were fired behind it. Crowe's immediate thoughts were of Taylor, who had been completely exposed to the blast. Crowe's eyes shot open, and he saw the look on the girl's face above him.
She was breathing heavily, and when Crowe looked up at her, he saw pain in her eyes. The girl grit her teeth and sat up, then groped around for her weapon and struggled to get on her feet.
Crowe, despite some pain in his shoulders still, tried sitting up to help her, but she threw out her arm, telling him to stop.
"What's wrong?" he asked her.
"Nothing," she lied. The pain in her eyes and the red of her face told him that. She took a deep breath through her nose, then readjusted her grip on the gun, released her breath and told him "Stay put and keep quiet. I'll be back."
As she painfully stood up, Crowe turned his head and desperately looked for Taylor. He finally found him, lying on his side next to the tree he was leaning against. From the look of his face and the clothes he wore, he hadn't seemed to be bleeding anywhere new, thank God. If he hadn't been earlier, he was definitely unconscious now.
The girl turned and went to cover behind the half of the massive tree closest to her. As she turned, Crowe saw specks of blood spread all around the back of her body, where he assumed, splinters of tree bark from the explosion lodged into her when she had her back turned. He knew now why she was in pain, and wondered what would have happened had she turned the other way for the blast. He then thought to himself: That could have been me.
She protected him from the explosion with her own body. A complete stranger. And yet she continued to fight, to protect.
Crowe was sick of lying down, of feeling useless. He got up from his spot on the ground, and pain quickly shot into his head from his shoulders and arm. He fell to his hands and knees for support, and felt sweat beading from his pores, despite the rain. Already exhausted, but not willing to give up, he looked to his right and saw, lying a few feet away, the girl's sword, still sheathed.
She might need that, he thought to himself. He looked up to her, and saw her fire off a grenade toward the enemy. She came back down behind cover of the tree, reloaded a fresh grenade from her bandolier, and shut the chamber. Without even glancing at Crowe, she stood up and aimed her weapon.
Evan crawled on his knees to the sword and reached out for it, only to have a stray gunshot fire millimeters from his hand. He quickly withdrew his reach, then turned and looked at the girl who had fired off another grenade at the enemy. She turned her head to look at him, then opened her mouth to yell something - but was cut off right then after getting shot.