Monthly Archives: March 2012

Aftermath: Chapter Five

Kyle Yeager huddled in an abandoned mansion that was not his own. All of eighteen-years-old he traded some fuel he siphoned from some cars to an old lady who now baked her own bread, among other rarities.

The bread tasted amazing and was a Godsend right now, since he hadn’t anything else to eat in two days. He was scuttling down what was once the richest part of the city, grand mansions now empty and dark, decadence gone astray, hiding his bread and figured why not.

No one lived there anymore and he’d always wanted to see the inside of just one of these houses. Coming from a working class family, they never had much more than a modest ranch house with three small bedrooms for a family of six.

He didn’t know what happened to them, his mother and father, his two brothers and sister. When the disasters came and the black smoke blotted the sun and the quakes tore the streets open, he was knocked unconscious. He woke in a neighbor’s basement unsure of how he got there. Beside him was the body of Maryanne Milford, one of his mother’s friends and neighbor. She’d cut her own wrists open.

He learned quickly how to survive. Staying hidden at night. Trading goods with others in the city by day. Making allies with the innocent. Minding his own business when he saw something strange or unsettling.

He would move from home to home, rummaging through what was left, gathering supplies and then meeting at touch points with others to trade. So far it worked.

This house was his favorite yet. It had a game room with billiards and dart boards. A small bar in the corner of the room contained a couple of half full bottles of vodka and tequila. He stowed them in his pack and gobbled down the rest of his bread.

He stepped into the hallway. It was carpeted but it smelled musty, the ceiling unfortunately leaked now. Mold spread across the plastered walls, ruined paintings hung askew.

He reached the staircase, a massive twisting banister riddled with scratches curled down into the dark. Kyle stepped onto the first stair and froze. A noise below caught his attention.

Movement stirred, heavy steps, a thud then some crashing furniture. He listened closely and heard snorting, sniveling and huffing.

Kyle backed up, crept down the hall and caught glimpse of a deformed shadow forming on the wall behind him. It was a mutant….searching the house for food. It tore through the downstairs and now headed for the upstairs. It probably picked up his scent already.

Kyle’s heartbeat picked up, his palms dampened. He started back to the game room and in his nervous haste bumped into the wall. A painting tumbled to the floor.

A roar erupted downstairs and the mutant stomped onto the stairs. There was no time, Kyle pressed himself against the wall, reaching for his bag, fumbling for one of the glass alcohol bottles when something incredible happened.

His arm became the color of the wall and blended perfectly with it. He looked down and his legs had taken on the same effect. A grunt caught his attention.

The beast’s bulbous head crowned the edge of the stairs and its threshold. Kyle reacted and pressed his entire body flat against the wall. He blended with it. Flesh became plaster, clothes vanished, even his bag hid inside the camouflage he was able to project.

The mutated creature, a cross between a pig and a human, a wet snout sniffing the air, cloven feet stomping the ground, skulked by him. It hadn’t seen him at all.

Kyle waited as it continued down the hall, punching the walls, kicking doors in. It roamed into a bedroom at the end of the hall and disappeared. Kyle took his chance.

He ran down the stairs and out the front door. “Time for a new neighborhood.”

###

Orchid was awakened by whimpering. At first she thought she was dreaming. She looked around the school’s basement and saw groups of people sleeping together including Jack, cradling his son Justin. Both slept soundly.

She got up and moved her way around the basement. She found Cesar sleeping but Morganna wasn’t with him. Usually she was either with Orchid or Cesar or at least nearby. Concerned now, Orchid searched on. The whimpering started up again. She let it lead her around some furnaces and air ducts. Rows of pipes filled the ceiling, some dripped with water. A supply closet was open in the back of the water heater’s chamber.

Orchid headed for the closet. She reached the door and a mop sailed past her.

“Stay away!” a small voice called.

“Morganna, it’s me,” Orchid said as she peered in and saw Morganna cowering in the corner of the closet.

“Orchid?”

“Yes, it’s me. Come out of there.”

“Where am I?”

“In a maintenance closet. What’s happened?”

“Another vision. Inside my dream.”

Orchid saw the young girl take hold of her green gemstone and instantly calm down. She pulled herself up and exited the closet.

“Are you okay?” asked Orchid.

“I was sleepwalking…running rather. The vision showed me a new man with power. An older man. He was not using his powers for good, Orchid. In the dream he came for me, chased me into a trap. He will not side with us.”

“We’ll just have to convince him then.”

“I don’t think he can be convinced. He’s getting stronger. Knows how to use his powers very well and doesn’t care who he hurts. He is called Solomon. And he thinks he should be king.”

“Just what we need right now, another whacko.”

“The masked man. He will come again. We need to find the others like you soon. Only together can we stop him. He is their weapon, meant to stop humanity from rising again.”

“Who’s weapon?”

“I cannot say just now.”

“Of course you can’t.” Orchid smiled. “Well, will either of these two find us tonight?”

“No.”

“Then c’mon, Let’s go back to bed.” Orchid put her hand out and Morganna took it.

###

“A tasty double feast,” Octavius said, eyeing Cameron and Lila. “Take them!”

Cameron jumped in front of wife and curled his fists. Rage shot through him, burning hot, tears ran rivers down his cheeks, his head dampened with sweat. “Don’t you touch her!” He yelled. “I will rip you apart!”

The white wolf howled…loud and baleful and leapt into the air.

It came down on the first cult member to charge and tore into him, ripping his chest to shreds with sharp teeth and paws.

The other cult members hesitated. Octavius’s face was a mask of anger. “Get them you fools! The God of the Feast demands it! Kill the damned mutt!” He lifted his sword against his own members and they charged.

The wolf’s howl was returned. Many howls cried into the night.  A moment later a pack of street dogs charged the boathouse.

The pack of hungry dogs descended on the cult. Three more members fell to saliva-coated teeth and raking paws.

The cult began to scatter into the streets, shrieking, tripping over themselves. The white wolf jumped from its fresh kill and landed in front of Octavius. The two locked gazes. Octavius pointed his sword at the wolf. “We’ll meet again, beast.”

Octavius fled with the rest of his people and the wolf held his ground.

The dogs circled Cameron and Lila, whimpering, begging for accolades. Cameron turned to his trembling wife. She was in awe. Her mouth hung agape, her eyes were wide.

She hugged Cameron then looked up at him. “How? Did you do all of this?”

“I think indirectly,” he replied. “I’m as amazed as you.”

The wolf came to Cameron’s side. The rest of the dogs got down on their bellies and whined, tongues hanging out, tails wagging.

Cameron looked down at the white wolf and petted him. “It’s okay boy, they can go now.”

The wolf howled at his cousins and the pack ran off into the streets, back to their scavenging.

Cameron bent down to the wolf and put his head to its head. “That was awesome.”

The wolf licked his face.

Cameron laughed and wiped his mouth. “C’mon,” he took Lila’s hand. “Let’s get out of here and off of these streets.”

###

Luana stood over her rescued man and glared through her sunglasses. Seemed any kind of light these days irritated her. She marveled at her handy work and ran her gloved hands over him.

His eyes slowly opened. His lips parted. He finally woke from his surgical sleep. “What’s going on?” He looked down at himself. “What have you done to me!”

“I’ve made you better,” Luana replied. She looked up and down. His right hand was replaced with a metal one, a robotic hand with silvery serrated fingers. The right arm was embedded with wires that connected into his muscles and biceps. Parts of it had been replaced with plates and bolts. The joints were synthetic.

His left arm had a device bolted into his wrist with a small screen for reading coordinates and tracking movement and life signs. It was adorned with nodes and flashing lights. His left eye was covered with a monocle surgically grafted to his face that had a LED light. His left shoulder had a small laser cannon on it.

“With your right arm you can lift a car or take down a tree,” Luana began. “The device on your left hand will track all manner of energy for me, both biological and manufactured. You can command the laser cannon by will and the piece over your eye will give you a flawless aim. You are my warrior. One more powerful then all of my soldiers combined. I’m going to need you to take down that masked dude with all the power. Once I get his power under my control nothing will stop me.”

“You crazy bitch. You’ve turned me into a freak!  I won’t fight for you…ever!”

“You won’t have much choice.”

“Think so? What if I just blow your head off right now?” The laser on his shoulder whirred with a hiss and pointed directly at Luana’s face.

“Please. You don’t think I’ve thought of betrayal? I wrote the book.” She pushed a button on her glove and the laser shut down, his arm went immobile and the eye’s light snuffed out. “A kill switch. One push deactivates your weapon systems. One more push and I stop your heart. Now, get up, we’ve got some hunting to do.” She pushed another button and his weapons and mobility returned.

He pulled himself up, weak at first then gaining control over his new body. He moved slowly, arms and legs heavy, a thud resounded on the floor as he set his feet on it.

“Oh yes,” Luana said. “I’ve replaced the muscles in your legs with robotics. You can now leap to the top of most buildings in the city.”

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Stay Tuned…

The story will continue.

I plan to post new chapters every other weekend, schedule permitting. Chapter 5 should post weekend of March 24th.

Thanks for tuning in.  In the meantime I am preparing to post a characters Tab so you can keep up on who’s who and whether they’re a good guy or a villain. Don’t worry, I won’t give away any plot points.

Look for that this week.

Thank you,

John


Aftermath: Chapter Four

Dripping water echoed rhythmically in the catacomb-like sewer system. Shadows wriggled in the distance as weak light danced and reflected over the muck-filled water. The water, now unregulated, had flooded certain areas while in others it drained completely. Larger than average rats scavenged massive piles of garbage.

The corridors twisted into networks of intersections and rung-ladders leading to rusted grates. Tunnels went off into a myriad of directions and doorways swallowed by eternal darkness.

In one of the larger openings, what used to have been working electrical boxes and power cables, scarlet-robed figures gathered before a makeshift altar of cement. The cracked block of gray cement was filled with candles. Some of the men and women held torches.  Under new leadership, the cannibal cult waited to be addressed.

Tall red-haired Octavius stepped out on the altar. He stared at his disciples and held out his hands, palms open. Shorter, white-haired, almost an albino, Malec joined his side.

“Brothers and sisters,” Octavius began. “This is a new beginning. Our former leader was unworthy and he was struck down by the Lord of the Feast. We honor this demand of our God and obey. He has appointed me your new leader. He has charged me to teach his word and provide sustenance for you all. Those of us, the chosen ones, feast on the unworthy, the lost and the blasphemers. They are our food and our feast… is long overdue.”

Collective humming filled the chamber, shadows wriggled against candlelit white walls marred with sludge, the smell of filth and waste hung thick in the air.

“Now go…search the lands above, venture to the outer areas and bring me back one suitable for the Feast!” Octavius lifted his arms over his head and the cult dispersed quickly into the sewers.  He turned to the albino Malec and smiled.  Malec grinned back sinisterly, exposing pointed teeth. He’d filed them himself to sharp points to more easily devour the flesh of the unbelievers.

###

Luana handled a glowing green orb with a pair of tongs. She walked it over to a silicon case and dropped it in, latching the case shut. She slid it under her passenger chair. The truck rumbled over a rocky trail and finally came out the other side of deep thicket.  Luana glanced out her window and stared at the ruined homes, gutted cars and crumbling churches.

The truck screeched to a halt. The back doors and ramp opened and her men charged out. She stood up and switched on her black box. Its lights blinked wildly. “There are big readings here.” She walked outside as the sun was setting. She pulled the sunglasses from her face, finally able to remove them for the first time today.

Outside her men scrambled around, trashing the inside of already desiccated homes, searching car trunks and overturning every bit of debris in their path. One of her men dashed over to her.

“I’m s-sorry Luana,” he stammered. “I’m afraid the electrical power source has already been taken. Electricity is in very high in-demand. Many can still put it to use.”

“Can they?” she never looked up from her black box. “Blake, I am big believer in perfection. In fact, I can’t tolerate incompetence or stupidtiy.”

“Of course,” he answered, his lips quivered.

Luana reached into her pocket and pulled out a sliver bracelet. “What’s even worse than that is excuses.”

He remained silent as she slid the bracelet on her hand.

“At least admit when you’ve screwed up instead of blaming it on other illusive, phantom people who may or may not have taken my power.” She tightened her hand into a fist and a rod extended from the bracelet. She aimed it at Blake and fired. A laser flashed and hit him in the center of the chest.

He collapsed onto the ground and smoldered. The other soldiers stood around and gawked at his lifeless form.

“Nice little gadget isn’t it?” Luana showed them all her bracelet laser device. “Made it myself. Get rid of that.” She pointed at Blake’s body.

Her men picked him up and shuffled off. Luana’s box started beeping loudly again and she tuned into it. “Again…that huge power source….it’s been here.” She looked around and started off down the street.

“Like nothing I have ever seen,” Luana squealed. “It’s like residue or something.” She followed the reading to a cemetery. She walked past open graves, crumbled stones, burnt patches of grass. Dead trees reached for her, a few branches snagging her raven tresses.

The device in her hand grew louder, its lights going berserk. “My God…what is this thing?” She stopped at an open grave, discovering the limp body of a girl. Luana bent down and examined her.  “Whatever this power is, it killed this pitiful creature. Why? What threat could she have possibly been?”

She pulled herself up and headed back to her truck. The crew moved on following the powerful residue that was quickly becoming Luana’s obsession. The truck rumbled down a more suitable road, headlights illuminating the recent dusk.

The truck came to a screeching halt again as a wounded man stumbled out to the middle of the road. He collapsed inches from the truck.  “Luana! A man in the road!” the driver called.

Luana hopped out, two armed men accompanied her. “H-h-help m-m-meee,” the man reached for her. His head was shaved, his ears and nose were pierced and he wore leather pants and a leather jacket with studs and chains. His nose and mouth were stained with blood. “S-some chic with ssstrange powers tried t-t-t-to squeeze me to death w-w-with power lines.”

This caught Luana’s interest. She turned to her men. “Help him into the truck. I may find a use for him.”

###

“It’s okay, Justin, just stay by my side,” Jack comforted his son. Night had fallen and the young boy got more nervous with each passing moment.

Jack saw a tree branch lying in the street before him. He picked it up and curled his free hand around the top of it. When he let it go it crackled with fire, a temporary torch to light their way.

They walked hand in hand trying to stay in the alleyways and avoid the open streets. Jack felt as if they were walking targets, as if mutations stalked them at every corner. He tried not to let his fear infect his son but it was getting harder and harder every day.

Father and son followed alley after alley until footsteps caught Jack’s ears.

“Daddy,” Justin whimpered, clinging to his father’s leg.

“It’s okay, I won’t let anything hurt you.” Jack glanced at his torch and it flared briefly. “Who’s there?  I’m warning you…I’m dangerous. One more move and….”

“We would never hurt you.” Orchid stepped out of the shadows, holding Morganna’s hand.

“Who are you?” Jack asked.

“My name is Orchid and this is Morganna.” The little girl gave a wave. “We’re here to help you and your son, Jack.”

“How did you know my name?”

Orchid looked down at Morganna and smiled. “Morganna told me.”

Jack looked at her in disbelief, his eyes wandered to the green stone she wore around her neck. “How…I?”

“You’re the one who ignites fires,” Morganna said. “Aren’t you, Jack?”

“Yes, I do…how did you know that?”

“She knows many things, Jack,” Orchid said. “I come from a group of people like you and me. I can do things too.” Orchid snapped her fingers and a breeze blew down the alley. She pointed at a window at the building across from them and its glass shattered. “We’re working together to protect each other and rebuild. Morganna knew where you were and she brought me to you. There’s much I need to tell you, but you have to trust us.”

“Well that’s just it, isn’t it,” Jack said, moving his body between them and his son. “How do I know you’re not just some psychos or mutants?”

“Do we look like mutants?” Orchid asked. “As for our sanity, I think you know. Trust your inner voice, trust your instincts.”

Morganna smiled at Justin. He tugged at his father’s pants, Jack still wore his shirt and tie, his dress pants as if he was still working at a corporate office. He looked down at his son. “It’s okay dad. Morganna is nice.”

Justin stepped out from his father’s shadow and giggled. Morganna giggled back.

“It’s okay,” Orchid said. “Come stay with our people. Safety in numbers.”

Jack looked back at the streets behind him, the dangers, the horrors then looked back at his giggling son, the first time he’d seen him laugh in so long. Jack rubbed his face with a sweaty hand and slowly made his way to the girls. “Okay,” he said with hesitation.

###

Cameron and his wife Lila entered the city for the first time in years, even before the disasters they lived a secluded life seeing very few people, living meagerly and planning for a time just like this.  They didn’t plan on running out of resources so fast. One disaster would have been enough but dozens? No one could have accounted for that.

The white wolf led the way, Cameron directly behind it, Lila by his side. Cameron had asked the wolf to guide them safely to the city and to some sort of food source, whatever the wolf’s nose could flesh out.

The three of them entered small town on the outskirts of the city. The wolf crossed the first street they came into contact with. On the other side was a small general store, its windows were smashed in and the interior had been ravaged but there were still prized items to be found.

Cameron crept his way in to make sure everything was clear and that the store was empty. He gestured for Lila to come and together they rummaged around in the dark.

“Cashews!” Lila beamed. “I found cashews, and some walnuts.”

“Great, collect as much as you can into our sacks. There’s some dried cereal here and boxes of dried prunes. Oh and chocolate…my God…chocolate!”

The wolf sniffed his way into the store and stopped at its entrance. He sat and watched his human companions scramble around like kids in a candy shop.

“Chocolate?” Lila called. Her face lit up with a smile and she hustled over to her husband. She didn’t wait nor ask. She tore into the individually wrapped chocolate drops, probably sold as penny candy, and devoured them.

“Slow down, honey. Don’t overdue the sugar.”

“Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve had chocolate?” She said with a mouthful of melting candy. She glanced over at the wolf. “Why do I think he keeps looking at me like I’m a chicken dinner.”

“He’s perfectly tame now but you do bring up a point. We need to feed him something…he’ll need some meat. Dried cereal and prunes aren’t going cut it. Maybe I can find some canned meats, like Spam or something.”

“Good luck with that, that’s probably all cleaned out by now.” There was chocolate caking her lips.

A snarl escaped the wolf suddenly. Cameron looked up to see the hair on the animal’s back bristle. The wolf hopped to its four paws and stared out of the broken doorway. Cameron stepped softly and crept to the door to see why his wolf guardian was getting hot under the collar.

Across the street the masked assassin stood. His chest heaved, his muscled arms flexed. Gray eyes glared directly at Cameron. The very sight of him made Cameron’s breath catch in his throat. The wolf growled and bared his teeth.

“Shit, what is that?”

“Cam, what’s going on?”

“Stay where you are. Don’t come to the door. I think we might be in some trouble.”

“Oh God…”

The opposing figure muttered something into the air but Cameron couldn’t hear him. The wolf lowered his head and growled louder, saliva escaped his teeth and he prepared to pounce.

The killer took one step out into the street and a glowing net was thrown over him by a group of soldiers.

Cameron couldn’t believe his eyes. He turned back to Lila. “Ok, time to make a break for it. Take everything you can. Let’s go!”

Lila and Cameron gathered up bags of preserved food and ran for the door. The white wolf leaned back on its hind legs, preparing to attack.

“Wolf no!” Cameron called, sensing the action. “Not now, not time for this.  Come boy!” The wolf abandoned his attack to accompany his humans. Cameron looked back as they ran off…the soldiers threw chains around the great man with the mask, struggling to take him down.

###

The soldiers pulled the chains with all of their might as Luana watched from the shadows. He is it… the power that keeps eluding me! The greatest power on the earth. It might not even be of this world. Such force, such energy. Unrelenting.

The masked man took hold of the chains and pulled…two soldiers flew into the air and smashed into each other. Noses broken, blood spattered. The bodies crumpled to the ground. The killer ripped the energy net from his body as if it was a bed sheet, simply absorbing the shocks that surged through his flesh.

And apparently unstoppable…

More of Luana’s soldiers charged the killer, drawing guns and swords. With one blow he sent one man crashing into a tree. He swung his hand around and crushed the uzi pointed at his face then put his hand through another man’s chest. The third solider managed to sink his blade deep into the beast’s shoulder.

The killer shrugged if off, turned and seized the soldier by the throat. He lifted him off the ground and crushed his neck. The rest of the soldiers backed off and started toward Luana.

“Back to the truck,” Luana barked. “He’s much too strong right now. Another time, boys.” She dashed back with them, her mind twisting, turning, conniving. There’s got to be some way to wear him down. I need something to counter his strength. Until we meet again, my friend.

###

“Where are we going?” Jack asked.

“Still untrusting?” Orchid replied.

“I’m just trying to protect my son. He’s been through enough already. Is that such a bad thing? The world has gone to hell, excuse me if I want to keep him safe.”

“It’s not a bad thing at all,” Orchid continued. “It’s wonderful but you’re not alone anymore.”

“We all protect each other,” Morganna added. The little girl paused and grasped her stone necklace. Her eyes shut and her other hand twitched.

“Morganna what is it?”

“A vision…a little unclear…I see a man and woman.”

“And?”

“There’s a wolf with them.”

“A wolf…that’s new. Are they bad?”

“I can’t tell yet…I…it’s gone.” Morganna opened her eyes and let out a sigh. She was slightly out of breath. “We will cross paths with them.”

“We should be ready,” Orchid said. “Don’t know what the wolf’s story is.”

“He was beautiful.” Morganna smiled.  It made Justin smile back.

“This happen a lot?” Jack asked.

“Only when something important is gonna happen.” Orchid led him to a hill and climbed to the top. There was a parking lot full of crushed school buses, mangled swing sets and hollowed cars. The tar of the lot was cracked and overgrown with sickly weeds. Downed power lines snaked around the ground.

A short distance away a school building sat dark and in distress. Its windows were all shattered. The roof was half collapsed. The chain link fence around it was curled on itself. Through the windows there was nothing but black. Some brittle letters spelled out High School above a pair of double doors.

“There?” Jack said unimpressed and a little disappointed.

“It doesn’t look like much but the basement is set up like a bomb shelter. It’s all we got right now and it serves its purpose.”

“Come,” Morganna held her hand to Justin and the little boy took it without a blink. “There’s some jax and balls to play with.”

Orchid smiled at the two kids then cocked her head at Jack and winked at him.

Jack rubbed his face nervously and finally cracked a smile. “Who the hell are you people?”

###

Luana stood over the examining table stroking her new member’s shaved head. She’d taken his leather jacket and chains away. He shivered a bit. Bruises peppered his face. The once would-be street punk, although glad to be alive, seemed wracked with fear.

“Everything’s going to be okay,” Luana said. “Can you tell me more about the woman who did this to you?”

“S-S-she…had blondish white hair and some weird-ass dress with dots or something. M-m-e and my friends were just trying to get a necklace away from a little girl.”

“Necklace?”

“Yeah, it looked valuable, we just wanted to sell it for some more weapons.”

“I see. Maybe after I fix you up you can tell me where you found this little girl with the necklace. I scratch your back, you scratch mine.”

“Whatever you want…just please make the pain go away.”

“It will, dear.” She snapped her fingers and a few of her men came with bandages and a first-aid kit.

She stepped away while they cleaned him up. Necklace. Sounds like something I need to see for myself. An itch distracted her from her thoughts. Luana looked down at her left arm and noticed a small patch of green scales had formed on it. No. She rushed from the room.

In her quarters she took a pair of black leather gloves and slid them on. She looked around quickly to make sure no one saw then returned to the examining room.

###

The masked killer stumbled down a darkened street littered with debris. He turned a corner and made his way to a shell of a house. There was a picket fence still encircling the yard. He stopped and stared at it then up at the house. Shutters hung precariously off their hinges and dangled, slapping against the house each time the wind blew.

He stared at the shutters then grabbed his head with both hands. He clawed at his mask almost ripping it off but it tightened.  “What am I!” he cried to the night sky. “Where do I come from?”

Enough. A voice in his head said to him. Or was it really in his head? It actually sounded as if it came from the sky. You are here to destroy them all.

“Why? Why do I kill them?”

It is none of your concern. The voice came from inside the house suddenly. You are our sword. They must not become one. Stop at nothing.

“I can’t find them all. It is an endless task. My pain only grows.”

When they are all dead you will find peace. The voice came from behind him now. He turned to the street but it was empty. We have all the time in the world.

He fell to his knees, holding his head in his hands.

###

Cameron and Lila hurried along a fence with a river beside it. The white wolf trotted alongside them.

“Maybe we can stop for a moment and wash our faces, our hands?” Lila asked.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea,” Cameron said. “It’s probably polluted with radiation or acid rain. It might not be safe at all. We should keep moving.”

“I’m getting tired. Can’t we stop for just a little while?”

“Okay, over near there.” He pointed to a small boathouse with some old canoes still attached to them.

They hurried over to the boathouse and positioned themselves behind it out of sight. The wolf went to the edge of the river, sniffed around then walked back, sitting himself beside Cameron.

The boathouse creaked. Cameron looked around it, examining it. There was a thud and suddenly one of the doors opened.

The wolf jumped to his feet with a snarl.

Dozens of scarlet-robed cult members walked out of the house, surrounding the couple. Octavius stepped out to the front and grinned. “Well, what do we have here?”