Lilia had been on this hunt all morning with nothing to show for her effort except fatigue. Rain began to drip through the forest canopy and onto the three loping forms. Lilia’s hood hid most of her face from the increasing wet as she dodged trees and jumped over limbs and undergrowth. Despite a slight wheeze that escaped each time she exhaled, her pace never changed, her speed consistent.
Christopher and Owen followed her lead. Christopher took up the rear while Owen ran to her right. Owen’s movements were careful, and his joints popped with each footfall, a sound she tracked like every other motion in their surroundings. Except there was no other motion. No birds called, no squirrels scurried up a tree or over a fallen branch. It was too quiet. Lilia wasn’t sure why, and the distant rumbling in the sky made the twisting in her gut worse.
Christopher’s steps faltered, and he panted in ragged gasps. He barked for them to stop in a clearing, and Lilia’s hands flew to her hips as she caught her breath. All three of their chests heaved.
“We could go home,” Owen said. His hands were on his knees. “It’s not like we need the meat.”
Christopher’s chin tensed and rose, forming a definite “don’t argue with me.”
Lilia understood his command as if words were spoken. He was the most experienced. Unless Owen challenged him for control, both of them obeyed whatever Christopher ordered like real wolves. On this trip, Lilia was just a pup with above average senses. Nothing more.
Lightning veined out in desperate tendrils. A few minutes later, thunder rolled through the sky. The vibrations rattled her chest, and the gray clouds morphed into a dark, thick mesh of energy. More thunder smacked against her. The massive storm loomed one, two, three, four, five, six, seven miles away, by the delay between strike and sound. The pressure rose as she sniffed the air with lifted chin, and the humidity almost suffocated her senses.
“We have to turn back soon or the storm’ll catch us.”
A low growl frothed in her dad’s throat and bubbled over through twitching lips.
She growled back, though her head still cowered under his. “This isn’t worth our lives, is it?”
“Just find something so we don’t have to hump home through this, Pup.” Owen stepped between Christopher and Lilia, arms in straight lines, body rigid as he spread his fingers.
A deep snarl erupted from Christopher’s mouth, and he shoved Owen down. Instead of fighting back, Owen lifted his throat to Christopher’s clenched fist. Lilia inhaled. This was ridiculous — and normal. The two of them fought more and more, and she wasn’t sure how to make it stop.
Turning away, she tilted her head north, then south, then east, west. A few twigs snapped. The wind told her nose that a young buck picked its way through the northern underbrush.
“Thank the Old People,” Lilia muttered.
Thrill of the hunt overpowered her anxiety. Christopher and Owen sprinted behind her. Thanks to the patter of the ever-increasing rain, hearing wasn’t reliable. Instead, she focused on smell, since she needed to locate their prey before the rain muddled the world into an incoherent mess. The wind cooled her face, pressed against her nose and open mouth. It told her the deer crept towards them.
Christopher and Owen apparently caught the scent, too; they ran with renewed energy. It crackled between them like the frantic bolts of lightning above. Lilia wanted to howl, to revel in the hunt. It was the only time she became real. She wasn’t a modified anymore, some half-animal freak of science.
Lightning silently weaved through the clouds. Not even ten seconds later, thunder pushed against her body with a resounding roar. She tested the winds again; the deer was only a quarter mile away. Giving the signal to hurry, they charged at full speed. Christopher and Owen clutched their guns. Lilia wasn’t allowed one yet, but she didn’t need one. She veered left while Christopher stayed straight. Owen went right, and she know they flanked the buck perfectly. There was no way they were walking home in this weather without a reward.
Finally, she saw her prey: a buck with four points on its short velvet-covered antlers. He chewed on grass between the newly falling autumn leaves with a continuous, gradual movement towards a tiny gap in the thicket. They crashed through the forest and he bolted.
Lilia unsheathed her knife, focused on the buck’s progression. Closer and closer.
Owen caught up and dove for the buck. It frantically turned towards Lilia. With an eager whine, she lunged at the deer’s neck. It tried to stop its forward momentum and dash away, but Lilia’s knife plunged into its neck and she wrenched its body to the ground. Owen and Christopher helped keep it down. It wasn’t long before the buck stopped moving.
Owen whistled. “That never gets old.”
She smiled but moved away as Christopher caught up. “Happy now?”
He said nothing, but his body was relaxed. If he had a tail, she was sure it would be wagging, and she dipped her head in submission. Lightning blinked frequently. Thunder evolved into one long string of rumbles and roars. She helped quickly — and rather poorly — skin the buck, wrap as much of the meat in plastic, and toss it in Owen’s pack.
Just as they were getting ready to leave, Lilia heard another person creep through the brush behind them. Unease kicked in. The wind held no male or female identifiers, and her mind only registered the creature as “it”. And it smelled sick, wrong. Deformed.
Lilia gazed into darkening distance until she saw it: two gleaming green eyes in the underbrush. A mountain lion. No, not a mountain lion, a woman with nothing on but a grimy tank top and shredded jeans.
“Devolved,” she whispered. Her voice was so low, almost a growl, but Owen and Christopher heard.
The devolved’s lips rippled as it tried to reveal non-existent fangs. It wanted their food. Lilia saw Owen tighten his grip on his backpack as Christopher moved towards it, growling and snarling.
“This is my kill,” Christopher said with his body. “Mine.”
It hissed but came no farther. Owen aimed his rifle and fired. The bullet landed in the tree next to its dirty, pale face, and the creature ran away after yowling one more time. Like them and other modified, it was able, somehow, to make the same noises their natural counterparts could, but being devolved was worse. At least the animals knew what they were.
“That’s the third one this week.” Christopher frowned.
Lilia watched her dad mark the trees where the devolved thing had been. The brush stayed empty, and after a few minutes he turned southwest. “Let’s go.”
But Lilia tracked the devolved for a moment more. Its smell already faded because of the rain. Even when it was stronger she barely made out the human half. That person could’ve been just like her or her family or any other modified. Instead, something inside it laughed and curled into the degenerated beast of a human that ran farther and farther away, probably sheltered in some People-forsaken crevice for the night.
“Come on!” Owen let out a shrill, ragged bark, and Lilia turned to follow.
It took the rest of the day to get down the mountain, and half the time they hiked underneath incessant threads of light as it veined across the sky. At a few points Lilia heard more than smelled the devolved from before. Did it hope they would drop their food? She leaned her head sideways to catch the sounds easier. The thing never bothered to watch its step. Many leaves were stirred up, twigs snapped, sections of underbrush pushed aside as it all but tore through the forest after them. Owen looked back from time to time, too, but Christopher barreled forward. Was he worried? Lilia found it hard to know with her dad.
The devolved finally retreated when the trees broke and a large cabin in the middle of a clearing came into view through the deluge. Smoke curled out of a high brick chimney and into the gray twilight. Fluorescent light spilled through cedar windows and illuminated sections of a wide wrap-around porch.
Home. Whooping in a strange howl-bark, she bounded down the little hill and straight for the front door, which faced the mountains instead of the faint dirt road.
Three teenage bodies tumbled through the door and ran toward them despite the rain. The Prichard kids were Christopher’s godchildren. Christopher’s friend and his wife were Arctic wolf modified like Lilia and her family. They died of sickness, and Christopher took the Prichards’s three children in as his own. Sarah, the youngest, smiled and took Lilia’s backpack, each move gentle and shy as always. Cameron, the oldest, took Christopher’s. Spence grabbed Owen’s, and they all but dashed around to a section of the cabin’s wrap-around porch that was surrounded by wire mesh. Inside was a freezer and a stained table, where the meat was unpacked and stored.
Cameron and Spence snapped their jaws at one another as they chased Owen in a game of tag under the protection of the porch, yapping like idiots. Lilia laughed and taunted them, but Christopher ignored them. Shaking the rain from his body as if he were an actual wolf, he stomped the mud from his boots and walked into the cabin’s warmth.
It took a while for the others to tire, but they finally filtered inside. Owen grinned at the Prichards as they continued ribbing each other loudly from the kitchen. “Ah, youth.”
“You’re not old.” Lilia elbowed him and walked through the front door. “Yet.”
Owen shut the humid wet behind them and, with outstretched arms, yelled, “Jared. You’d better be making dinner.”
Pots clanked. Something clattered to the floor, and Lilia sighed. The smell of Jared’s hare modified blood trickled through the cabin. When she walked into the kitchen, her eyes confirmed what her nose already saw. Jared held his hand over the sink. Water washed deep red off his skin while shards of plate huddled around his feet like confused rabbits. The image fit, considering hares were rabbits, and lanky Jared was the image of a jittery pest in human form.
Lilia stooped to grab the bigger slivers. She scoffed, in a good-humored way, and patted Jared on the back after dumping the plate remains into the trash. As always, he jumped.
She turned him towards her until his soft child-like eyes met hers. “Just breathe, remember?”
After he nodded and stopped trembling, Lilia went to the closet and snatched out the broom. She swept up the tiniest bits while he finished making dinner. He placed a small plate of chicken next to a giant salad bowl at the center of the table.
Jared caught Lilia’s scowl at the lack of meat and grinned sheepishly. “Vegetables are good, right?”
The minute the chicken came to rest, everyone converged. Christopher and Renee appeared from the hallway. Renee’s smiling eyes were unfocused, making it obvious her thoughts were elsewhere. The Prichards ran to their spots. They yelped as they tripped over each other then cackled at themselves.
Everyone else laughed and took their seats with less gusto. Lilia sat next to Owen and Jared. Jared always sat next to Renee, the calmest person, and Christopher sat at the head of the table. It wasn’t a matter of respect or courtesy. He earned that spot, and until someone else earned it from him, no one dared to sit there, even as a joke.
“How’d the hunt go?” Sarah asked.
Christopher chewed on some salad, frowned — either at the salad or the question, Lilia wasn’t sure — but said nothing. Owen shrugged. Turning to Lilia, the Prichards begged with their puppy eyes and low whines.
“We saw a devolved.”
“Another one?” If Cameron possessed a tail, Lilia imagined it would furiously wave the crumbs off his chair.
“It’s nothing to worry about,” Christopher said.
“If they’re coming into the territory more, I’d say it’s something we should take care of. Right?”
“Finish eating.” Christopher’s snarled at Cameron until the boy lowered his head and complied.
Christopher’s vehemence surprised Lilia, and she wasn’t alone. Owen seemed confused, Renee grew more serious, and Jared was ready to bolt. The tension pushed against Lilia’s chest until she looked down at her lap.
“Anyway,” Sarah’s voice shook. “I thought you should know that guy called again.”
Owen chuckled. “I forgot we had that phone.”
“Who?” Lilia asked.
Christopher shrugged. “Some wolf modified down south.”
“What does he want?”
Sighing, Christopher all but threw his fork against his plate. “He wants to come and talk to me about something important. Wouldn’t say much more than that.”
“And?” She leaned forward with an eager smile.
Christopher turned to Sarah, who said, “He’ll be here in four days.”
“Now leave it alone.” Christopher jabbed at his food.
Everyone waited for Christopher to stand and put his plate in the kitchen sink before doing the same. The second Christopher disappeared around the corner of the cabin’s downstairs hallway, Jared, darted up the stairs to his bedroom. Owen herded the three siblings into their rooms, which were across from his, after giving Lilia a kiss on the forehead.
For a moment, Lilia sat in her seat, watching Renee clean. Each movement was coarse and uneven, so unlike the calm and smooth dance Renee normally performed even for the most menial chores.
“What’s Dad hiding?”
Renee didn’t stop scrubbing. “Leave it alone, Lilia.”
“Mom.” Lilia walked over and glared at the side of Renee’s face.
Her mom dried her hands before turning to her. “We found tracks near the clearing. Eight of them.”
“Two weeks ago. They were a pride of devolved lions, but there was one scent he couldn’t quite make out. Said it smelled too confusing, like it didn’t exist and did at the same time.”
Lilia wanted to punch the wall, the table, anything. “I would’ve noticed intruders that close.”
“You weren’t home.”
“I would’ve smelled something —”
“He covered the scents to make sure no one worried until he knew what he was dealing with. Besides, we haven’t seen any more traces of them. Just other devolved like that mountain lion.”
“Does the visitor have anything to do with this?”
“Yes. Christopher called him.”
“Why?” And why lie about calling him, Lilia wondered.
“Please, I can’t answer that yet.” Renee kissed Lilia on the cheek. “Be patient.”
“No promises.” Lilia stalked to her room. It was on the first floor and faced the road. She stared into the night, seeing the two strips with ease. She imagined devolved with tawny hair and razor-sharp teeth crawling up that path and into her window until her eyes finally closed and forced her mind into a dreamless peace.
Four days later, Lilia woke before the sun. She wasn’t the first one up, either. Cooked eggs, venison sausage, and coffee hung over the stale air. Smoke from the fireplace curled through the cabin like a warm blanket as Lilia opened her window. Fall announced its arrival with a cool blast of crisp air. She tried to focus on the energy that brought, but her hands shook as she shoved on her clothes.
Renee, Christopher, and Owen were in the kitchen already, plates half empty. No one spoke, and by the lack of sound she realized Jared and the Prichards weren’t in the cabin at all.
“The others went out early to get some spring water for our guest,” Christopher said.
“When will he be here?”
“Around noon, maybe.”
“Were you going to brood here in silence the entire time?” Lilia ignored Renee’s call and went outside to the front porch. Since she was five, she claimed the long, green swinging seat as her private spot. Whenever she sat there, growling to herself, everyone knew not to bother her. Except Owen.
Sure enough, a few minutes later, her uncle sat down next to her. Neither spoke. She gazed out at the clearing. Imaginary yellow eyes stared back, and she leaned on Owen’s shoulder.
“Why can’t things stay the same?”
“What makes you think they’re changing?” Owen wrapped an arm around her and they absorbed the beauty of the mountain as Owen pushed the swinging seat with his legs.
“You and Dad fight too much, Cameron’s been talking about leaving. Mom’s upset all the time. It just feels like it’s falling apart.”
“Maybe that’s not a bad thing.”
Lilia clenched her fists. She didn’t talk for a while, didn’t want to hear what Owen would say, and Owen seemed content with silence.
“So what do you think this modified wants?” Lilia forced a lighthearted tone. A truce.
Owen accepted and tousled her hair. “To see how cute you are, of course.”
“Fine.” His face became surprisingly blank. “Christopher wouldn’t say, so all I can do is hope whatever this is isn’t too serious.”
Lilia looked at the wooden planks of the porch. What could be more serious than lion devolved and a mysterious modified on their land?
A black jeep barreled into their dirt driveway three hours later. At least she thought it was a jeep. She only saw vehicles in Lake, the little modified town about two hours away. Fascinated, Lilia and Owen walked towards the metal thing. It ran on water, or so someone from Lake once said, which seemed convenient for them, being by a large body of water.
When the man stepped out, she forced back a snarl. Her instinct to protect their territory from an outsider — especially this unknown kind of wolf — surged through every movement and thought. Logic felt petty. Action was necessary. No. She inhaled sharply and exhaled just as he walked towards them.
When he took black sunglasses, his deep golden eyes held an intense familiarity. On each of his arms, just beyond his jacket sleeves, a vertical tan streak started at the center of his wrist and disappeared up his arms. The strange streak also peeped up from both sides of his shirt collar.
“I’m Avari.” He extended his hand to Lilia first.
She nodded, arms crossed, and her body kept its rigid mold.
Owen stepped forward. “I’m Owen, this is my niece, Lilia.” Owen nudged her hard, but she simply walked inside.
Even from the kitchen, his alien smell carried into her nostrils. It was a unique blend of deodorant and pine, nature and man all rolled into one. He was healthy, about five or six years older than her, definitely in his prime. No sexual activity for a few weeks, though a strong, feminine odor still clung to his jeans.
Lilia blushed. Why did she know every intimate thing about someone before she knew more than their name? As a modified, Avari must know the same things about her. Was that even fair? She sat down at the kitchen table while Avari walked in and introduced himself. Renee sat next to Lilia and smiled, giving Lilia’s hand a squeeze.
“Where are you from?” Christopher took his place at the head of the table and folded his hands. “Know your place in my territory,” his high chin and straight posture said.
Oddly, Avari seemed calm. Lilia’s nostril’s flared as she clenched her fists in her lap. Who was he to be so casual? He was an outsider. She repressed a growl, or at least tried. Only when Renee pinched Lilia’s wrist did she realize the low, gurgling noise came from her throat.
But Avari never even glanced at her. “My family’s from Bren, far south from here.”
“I’ve heard of it,” Christopher said.
“You’d be one of the few. Most people this far north only know about Hughes.”
“Hughes is the First City now?”
Avari nodded and, seeing Lilia’s confused face, said, “The First City home to our current Great General. You know, the leader of the Greater Cities and the council of Trusted Ones.”
“Oh.” Lilia knew of the Great General, how his Trusted Ones ruled the nine Greater Cities, with the General’s home being the First Above All, the most important place among the city-states.
Avari looked around the kitchen for a while. “This is an ideal location. Wonderful scenery, ample water sources. It’s perfect for raising a family—”
“I doubt you came here to talk about that.”
“I’ll get to the point, if that’s what you want.” Avari refused to lower his head below Christopher’s, but her dad said nothing. “These lions are a group of devolved led by a very ruthless modified. At least we think he’s modified. I’ve been hunting him for a while but never confronted him more than a handful of times, and he’s never come this far north before.”
“How helpful,” Lilia said.
Avari glared at her for a split second before casting his eyes away as Christopher snarled. “Who is he?”
“Sanders.” Avari’s jaw muscles flexed. “He’s been responsible for a number of attacks against both humans and modified.”
Avari shrugged. “All we know is he’s the one behind these attacks and that they’re getting worse.”
“We?” Lilia turned to Christopher and Renee. Neither returned her gaze.
“The Modified Defense Battalion, or just the Battalion for short, stationed down in Bren. Well, stationed all over, really, but Bren is my unit.”
“Sounds military,” Owen said. He looked just as displeased as Lilia.
“We’re a rebel group. We defend all modified from any threat, even the government, since the normals won’t.”
“How do you know about them, Christopher?” Owen shifted. All eyes in the room followed his until they landed on his brother.
“Our father helped an old colleague, Brandon Marbury, establish the Battalions in the north. He told me to call them if we got into too much trouble.”
“Seven lion devolved and Sanders is way too much,” Avari said.
“And they aren’t for you?” Lilia’s chest was puffed out.
Avari’s look soured even more. “Of course not. That’s the problem. I can’t fight them on my own and there aren’t Battalions up here anymore.”
“When did that happen?” Christopher asked.
“Before I joined. There are three leaders of three Battalion units,” he turned to Lilia then to Owen as he said this, “and Marbury controls the one in the north. He didn’t have enough men to defend the entire area and abandoned everything above Neyork.”
Neyork, Lilia knew, was a Greater City about half a day’s travel south by vehicle. She’d never been there, and was always told to avoid Cities. They killed modified on sight.
“You could’ve said this sooner.” Christopher’s face reddened and he growled slowly.
“I’m sorry, I thought you knew.” When Christopher said nothing, Avari said, “I was told to give you a deal: come with me or stay here, unprotected, and see what happens.”
“We’re not going anywhere.”
Lilia jumped when Owen nearly threw his chair across the room. “Like hell we aren’t. You can’t defend all of us from these things. If that stupid mountain lion attacked right now, sure, we’d be able to kill it, but seven lions and this Sanders?” He banged his hands against the table. “No way.”
“Don’t be so dramatic.” Christopher glared at Owen. “Sit down,” his eyes said.
Owen refused. “We should help him find Sanders, or at least defend other modified around here since they can’t.”
“We can’t defend ourselves, and you’re worried about outsiders?”
Avari tensed. Lilia caught his grimace, a split-second twitch at the corner of his mouth.
“I think Owen has a point,” she said.
“Stay out of this.”
Lilia stood beside her uncle. “No.”
Coughing quickly, Avari lifted his hands as if in surrender, his left sporting a massive, gnarled scar that went over his tan skin line and disappeared beneath the jacket. “If you don’t mind me staying here a week or two while I take a thorough look through your territory, you can discuss this later when I’m not around. How’s that?”
Owen stalked out the back door towards the woods and Lilia pretended to follow him onto the road. Instead, she went around to the front and opened the window near the front door. She sat on her porch swing, head tilted so her ear faced the window.
Renee went to the back porch; Lilia heard the door swing shut, heard her mom pace a few steps before her boots grated against the gravel line of road as she called for Owen.
“I’m sorry to cause trouble,” Avari said.
Christopher actually laughed. It sounded hollow and tired. “Trouble’s been brewing between me and him for a while.” He sighed. “I wanted him to leave on different terms and for different reasons.”
“Wanting to help isn’t bad motivation.”
There was a silence, and Lilia leaned closer to the window. Something creaked in the process. She froze, praying to the Old People they hadn’t heard.
“You’re a good man,” Avari finally said, and Lilia silently exhaled in relief.
Her dad growled. “You don’t know about being a man. Is the entire Battalion run by idiot pups like you?”
“And cubs, and kits, and all sorts of other modified.”
Christopher’s sigh wasn’t very loud, but Lilia heard it. “You have three weeks to figure out why your Sanders is up here. After that you’re gone — alone.” From the sound of crinkling leather, Lilia guessed Christopher grabbed Avari’s by his jacket. “Understand?”
There was a grunt and a scoff. “Relax.”
Christopher stormed out to the back porch but didn’t stay there. He ran off into the forest, no doubt trying to sprint his anger away. Lilia found herself wanting to follow. All wolves felt the urge to run, and modified were no different.
After a moment, Avari stalked towards the front door. Lilia held her breath as he opened it. He glanced at her before he leaned against the porch rail across from her. For the longest time he gazed out at the autumn leaves as they fell to the forest floor in the distance. The wind danced at a joyous pace. It played with Avari’s dark waves of hair, tugging them left and right, and tossed her hair around with blatant disregard for her ponytail. Lilia watched him for a while, and then she realized why she felt so uneasy.
Change was coming. Avari didn’t bring it with him; it’d slowly brewed in their hearts, waiting for the right catalyst to come along, for the right moment to explode.
Jared and the Prichards returned by mid-afternoon. Avari’s presence sent the three wolf pups into a frenzy. Poor Jared. Lilia stopped herself from giggling as the hare timidly shook Avari’s hand and disappeared upstairs.
Owen cooked venison for dinner and fried some potatoes before slathering it all in garlic. Then her uncle quietly slipped upstairs, leaving her with Avari and three eager teenagers. Apparently Christopher and Renee hid in their room to avoid the noise.
But Avari lavished all his attention onto the Prichards and, despite her reservations, she laughed and threw jokes into the chaos just as fervently as the golden-eyed man. Lilia tried to imagine the last time the Prichards had been so happy. Or her, for that matter.
After dinner, they all sat on the hearth of the empty fireplace and talked. Rather, Lilia and the Prichards listened. Avari told them all sorts of things about the rest of the General’s Land. About the Greater Cities, about the barren wastelands that used to be prosperous during the reign of the Old People.
He talked about some of his missions, about how the devolved were frequently attacking humans more often, and that made the Cities scared of all modified.
“They don’t care if you’re modified or rotten on the inside. If you act like an animal, you’re dead.” Avari grew very somber, and Lilia wanted to comfort him. The urge grew so strong she choked back a whine.
“Why do they hate us?”
“We’re dangerous?” Avari laughed bitterly. “You know I’m not entirely sure. But enough of that sour taste.” He smiled at the Prichards. “Let me tell you about Bren.”
As he talked about his home, and how they defended the most modified towns out of the three sections, Lilia realized how outlandish the world felt and how disconnected she was from it.
When everyone finally ran out of energy, Lilia padded upstairs. Owen’s room was at the end of the hall, to allow for privacy in case he ever met a woman and stayed with her. Though that never happened. In all her years, Lilia never knew Owen to be with any woman, never smelt her perfume on his shirts, never heard her laughter in the night. He was lonely. At least it was certainly lonely for her, being so isolated, and she wasn’t sure how Owen coped.
She knocked at his door and, once he called for her to come in, cautiously opened it. “Dinner was great.”
“Glad to hear it.” He didn’t get up. “Is there something else?”
He looked up from bed and gave her a thin smile. “Not really, Pup.”
“Everything will work out you know.”
“Thanks, but I’m not so sure this time.”
Owen sighed. “Just leave it alone.”
“I want to go. I’m sick of following my brother’s orders and seeing him raise his family.”
“But you’re family —”
“Do I have a mate of my own?” He motioned to his otherwise empty bed. “You’re all his, and I have no one to look up to me like that. I want it, Pup. I want my own pack.”
Owen turned away and lay down, covering himself with a blanket as Lilia closed the door behind her. Just before she left, she paused.
“You’re not the only one.”
On her way downstairs, the Prichards came up, whining and complaining about Avari not letting them go back to Bren with him. She smiled and wished them goodnight as Spence and Cameron went to one room, Sarah to another.
Avari came up behind them. Christopher allowed him to use her grandparents’s old room, the only empty one in the cabin. The thought of an outsider sleeping where her grandmother used to made her pulse quicken and her face burn. The couch would’ve been better. She bumped past him on her way down, and she heard his annoyed sigh as he slammed the door.
The entire cabin was dark, but the moon provided perfect illumination. Being modified came with some particular advantages, and it was nice being able to roam in the dark without stumbling around like a useless normal.
Not ready for sleep, she padded to her porch swing. The old wooden floors weren’t her allies in this, as each squeaked or cried out against her weight. The door whined, too, but Lilia’s swing was silent as she kicked off the ground and curled into the blanket that was always there, in case she fell asleep to the chill serene of the evening.
This wasn’t one of those nights. Lilia saw into the forest, saw a doe chewing on the tender grass close to the clearing. Its movements disturbed the leaves just enough to reach her ears. Unfortunately, it smelled Lilia and stiffened, staring straight at the cabin. Then it turned towards the forest and never looked back. Lilia frowned. Something else frightened it more.
Not knowing exactly what possessed her legs to move, she bolted for the doe. Halfway from the tree line, it heard her and ran, but Lilia caught a strange wisp of scent on the wind. It was neither devolved nor modified, if that was possible. And it was male, despite having no gender.
Doubting her nose, Lilia relied on sight and hearing. Nothing else stirred as she plunged into the forest, not even the birds. The only noise was the doe. It fled farther into the woods to the left.
Lilia’s every move was tense and rigid, ready to run or fight. Her hunting knife was still on her belt by sheer habit. She slid it out; the blade was painted black and reflected nothing. Nothing happened, nothing moved.
Was the night playing tricks on her? No. The scent lingered like a thin thread, pulling her deeper into the forest. Even there, light spilled through the cracks in ample amounts. The thing’s smell intensified. He — it, whichever — was close.
Before she could react, something pounced on her. The thing yowled and hissed and tore at her chest with human fingernails. Its human teeth sank into her neck as it growled through clenched jaws. Lilia wrenched herself around and stabbed at its shoulders. The tip scraped against bone.
Screeching, the thing’s grip on her neck loosened, and it pinned her down and squeezed Lilia’s throat with both hands from behind. Lilia tried to growl as her face pressed into soft earth, tried to stab it with her free hand. She slashed at anything, felt her blade slice through cloth and skin. But the world grew dark around the edges. Her breath became more and more shallow.
Finally, a wild swipe sank into the devolved’s side as another body clashed with it. It let go. She pushed backwards with all her weight and the thing and the other body fell over. Coughing, she gasped for air. The other body growled and stabbed the devolved in the jugular. It tried to run, but tripped over a branch not a few feet away. The other person followed and pressed his fingers into its windpipe. This time it stopped moving. Panting, the person stomped back to her.
“What the hell were you thinking?”
Lilia, still struggling to breathe, looked up at Avari. He wore only boxers and a long tank top. In his hand was a beautiful thin stiletto with ornate, spiral patterns running from the hilt to tip.
She caught her breath and examined the carcass. It was the mountain lion devolved. She yanked her knife free from its chest and wiped the blood on the grass. “How’d you know where I was?”
He shifted a little. “I saw you dash off and thought you were a total idiot going after something alone.”
“I killed it, didn’t I?”
“With my help.”
In one swift move, Lilia stabbed the devolved’s chest again. The dead body twitched. “Those are the only wounds that matter.”
“Then you’re welcome.”
“Thank you. Is that what you want to hear?”
With a frustrated growl, Avari jumped forward and pinned her to the ground. He ignored her snarls. “I’m not your enemy.”
“You’re ruining everything.” The petulance in her tone made her cringe.
“Oh, is your perfect life getting ruined?” He scoffed. “You don’t know shit about life. You don’t know what being an outsider really means, and your attitude won’t get you very far in the real world. Assuming you ever leave this little patch of dirt.”
When he loosened his grip on her arms, Lilia shoved him away. She forced her trembling hands to grab her knife and sheathe it. His words echoed in her mind like stones against a window pane, each one growing bigger and bigger until the glass shattered from the force.
The next afternoon, Lilia walked through the forest towards the mountain’s summit with Avari. The day was clear, the trees alive with song.
When they arrived back at the cabin last night, Lilia snuck into her room. Avari went upstairs but Christopher caught him and demanded to know why he was drenched in devolved blood. To Lilia’s surprise, Avari left her out of it and told the story from his perspective, saying he saw something in the woods and foolishly ran after it. Christopher thanked him for protecting his family; Lilia knew he smelled blood on her, but didn’t question why he left it alone.
Owen, however, hassled the truth out of her quickly come morning, when the bite and strangle marks turned a disgusting black and purple. He promised not to mention it, but wasn’t pleased. Lilia felt bad.
After breakfast, Avari offered Lilia a deal. If she showed him around for the three weeks, he promised not to tell Christopher who really went after trouble on their own. Lilia hesitantly agreed, and the two began the hike east.
They crested the forest within the next half hour and stopped at the mountain’s sloping summit. A large lake glimmered in the sunlight like diamonds under the brightest light.
Lilia smiled. “Our territory stops here. Hunters from town like to come up that side of the mountain a lot.”
“Do they come over here?”
“Once or twice, but we’re usually not around. And,” Lilia’s grin became mischievous, “there’s talk of creatures on this mountain that can swallow a man whole, so people tend to stay away.”
Avari’s chuckle was kind and rich. It made her relax. “I take it your family encourages these stories?”
“Of course. What’s funny is they’re partially true. There are creatures out here that are smarter than normal beasts. We’ve had some complications with them in the past.”
Lilia nodded. “Or so I’ve heard. Seems humans can’t stop experimenting.”
“It’s in our nature to want change.”
Guilt tightened in her stomach when she looked at Avari. He was right. She never saw past their forest, never gaped at the sheer size of the walls of the Greater Cities beyond Lake. She’d never even seen the nearest non-City before. She knew nothing, was nothing. She stared out at the scenery for a while, enjoyed Avari’s presence.
Avari tilted his head and glanced at her. “For?”
“Last night, my behavior in general.” She extended her hand to him. Her posture was relaxed and open, as if he was one of the pack. “Truce?”
With a nod, he shook her hand. Lilia patted him on the shoulder and started back towards the forest. “Come on.”
“Where are we going?”
“To the western part of our territory. It’s the farthest from home. I’d been saving it to scare you away, maybe kill you in it if you got too annoying.”
She laughed. With that, she hurled into a full sprint. She felt Avari’s smile on the back of her neck, or at least what she imagined to be a smile, and it was hard to focus on avoiding branches and trees.
Over the next half hour, Avari easily kept pace. It was impressive. Owen and Christopher struggled to do the same on any given day. When she asked why, they explained that some modified were more like animals and others more like humans. Like her grandfather, Stephen, she possessed a lot of wolf instinct and ability while Christopher and Owen were more in the middle. That meant Avari was more like her, closer to being a real wolf than a human. At least that was Lilia’s theory.
After what must have been a few hours, she slowed. The trees were in full color. Bright yellows, oranges, reds, and dark greens rose around them like thousands of ancient banners. It never stopped inspiring her, in all her twenty-some years of wandering through here with her family.
Avari appeared equally amazed. His eyes roamed around him instead of straight in front. Lilia smiled. At least he appreciated nature. Then again, maybe all modified had to. Maybe it was in their blood.
Lilia clawed some trees nearby. Her nails were dark and thick like a dog’s. She always painted them with blue polish, and the black sometimes showed through the cracks to odd effect. This was how she made her mark. Christopher hadn’t been by in a few weeks, and other animals needed to know they couldn’t enter without risk.
As she started for another tree, she picked up a strange half-smell. The devolved. But there was that strange smell again. Male, but not. Modified, but devolved. It was the same confusing sensation Lilia caught last night.
“They were here two days ago,” Avari said.
Lilia turned to him. “With Sanders, I’m guessing.”
“You can smell him?”
“Barely.” She explained the scent. “Is that normal?”
Avari shook his head. “Sanders isn’t like other modified.”
“Can you smell him?”
“Not unless I really concentrate and conditions are favorable.”
She sighed and looked around. “At least they’re on the edge of our territory instead of near the clearing.”
“And the scent is old. They left a while ago.”
Despite that, Lilia gave an uneasy glance towards the southeast. Sure, they were safe from attack, but she worried that wasn’t the issue anymore. Sanders’s presence felt ominous, and she grasped too little of the situation to understand why.
As a precaution, before they went back she scraped a few trees with her thick, blackened nails. “Don’t ever return,” the marks said.
The next two and a half weeks blew by before Lilia realized it. The morning before Avari left, she ate breakfast on the porch with him. Jared leaned against the rail and sat on the wooden slats while Lilia and Avari sat on opposite ends of Lilia’s swing. This was how they avoided the tension between Owen and Christopher.
Somewhere in that time, Avari became one of them. He knew what to say, made everyone laugh, even Christopher. Jared felt calm around him, which was incredible. Jared was rarely calm at all.
Avari gave her half of his last pancake. It was an automatic thing. When she grabbed their plates and ran inside, Owen was there, eating breakfast at the table alone. Lilia leaned over to hug him by the neck.
“I barely see you these days.” Owen stood and squeezed her again. “Seems you’re always off with that wolf of yours.”
She smacked his shoulder. “It’s not my fault you’re always in the woods avoiding Dad.”
Owen grew serious. “About that.”
Before he could say anything else, Christopher stalked in. Renee followed. Renee gave Lilia a kiss on the forehead. Christopher nodded at Owen while Renee served his breakfast after serving herself, as usual. Each movement was slow, every action hesitant. It was maddening.
When they went for their room, Owen grabbed his brother by the shoulder. “I need to talk to you.”
“Not now.” Christopher shrugged Owen’s hand away and kept walking.
“I’m leaving with Avari on Saturday.”
That made everyone pause. Christopher handed his plate to Renee and stalked straight up to Owen until their faces practically touched. “You can’t.”
Owen lifted his head above Christopher’s and puffed out his chest. “I make my choices now. You’re not my leader anymore,” his posture said.
Lilia expected Christopher to growl or shove Owen, anything other than just stand there and watch Owen walk out the front door. She went the back way and ran around to her swing. Avari and Jared stood there like statues, holding their breath as Owen came to stand just beyond them. Poor Jared’s eyes were wide; his entire body shook.
The world seemed devoid of ambient sound. Only the squeak of the Prichards opening their bedroom window and the padded thump of Christopher’s boots against wood as he came outside echoed in Lilia’s ears along with the cacophony of the group’s fast heartbeats. No birds sang. The day seemed dull despite the bright sun and the crisp breeze.
As Christopher left the porch, he bolted and punched Owen on the jaw. The crack was audible. Recovering quickly, Owen danced around Christopher’s second lunge and grabbed him by the neck. His other hand flipped open a butterfly knife. It was going to be a clean kill, a simple stab into Christopher’s jugular. Owen paused.
That was all it took. Christopher jabbed Owen in the face with his elbow, and Owen raised his knife to defend. It cut from Christopher’s elbow to halfway down his lower arm before it stuck.When Christopher jerked back the knife stayed. Owen growled. He hurled at Christopher with his full weight and grappled with him on the ground. Christopher’s snarl threw bits of spit everywhere. Owen yanked his knife from Christopher’s arm and pinned Christopher down by his chest, knife at his throat. As Christopher struggled, his neck turned crimson.
In some distant corner of her mind, Lilia registered Renee’s pleas for Owen to stop as Avari and Cameron rushed in. Neither managed to disentangle the brothers. All Lilia saw in their eyes was rage. No humanity, just savage fury.
Christopher managed to free an arm and unsheathed his large clip-point hunting knife. He stabbed Owen in the shoulder as many times as possible. Cameron still tried to wrench Christopher off of Owen, but Christopher snapped and attacked him. One strike glanced Cameron’s shoulder. The hunting knife sliced through his skin like it was paper. The boy yowled and ran straight to Renee, who rushed him inside.
Christopher glanced at Cameron long enough for Owen to punch Christopher in the collar bone. Christopher cried out; his left arm wasn’t moving anymore and almost dangled. The area around the shoulder instantly swelled.
Avari grabbed Owen by the shoulder and dodged a punch before getting Owen into a choke hold. Lilia rushed behind and grabbed Christopher as he was about to stab Owen in the chest. She slapped him hard enough to split his lip.
As if coming out of a trance, Christopher stopped struggling. Lilia followed his stare. Owen slumped against Avari. His shoulder held at least three or four deep punctures that stained his shirt red and his jaw was a ball-sized lump on one side. She felt her father’s collar bone. There was an obvious break and he winced when she touched it.
“We need to get both of you to Lake,” Renee said.
“You know their hospital won’t admit us. If they find out what we are they’ll burn us out.” Christopher groaned and struggled to sit down on the porch.
Owen sat on the ground while Renee took off his shirt and dabbed his wounds with a cloth and an acidic smelling solution that cleansed wounds of all infection within seconds as it clogged the wound with a clear, protective gel, keeping it from further damage.
“Don’t worry.” Avari flipped out a glass-like square, pressed some buttons that appeared in the center, put it his ear, and said, “Get a surgeon and a doctor to the Arland cabin. How long? Fine, but hurry.”
Avari knelt beside Christopher and examined his collar bone. “Definitely broken.”
“Well?” Renee bit her lip.
“We got lucky. There’s a medic near Neyork. He can be here in around four hours. Will they be okay until then?”
Renee nodded. She turned to her patients. “I don’t want to move either of you inside until I know the full extent of your injuries. Since you both decided to be wolfish about this, this whole — debacle — you deserve nothing.” After roughly pouring the gel onto Christopher’s neck, she vanished inside. Christopher made no attempt to stop her.
Lilia watched Avari follow Renee inside before she sat next to her dad. After a long moment, she grabbed his hand. Owen reached out with his good arm and clasped her other hand, smiling with only the right side of his face before he hissed and, withdrawing his arm, looked up at the thick, bushy clouds.
“I’m still leaving,” Owen said.
There was a long pause. Christopher grunted and looked up at the sky as well.
Curling her legs to her chest, Lilia watched the two most important men in her world construct a frozen wall in the break between them. But she understood. She understood their behavior, their motives. They lived, loved, and fought by instinct. That was what it meant to be modified.
End of sample
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