Air gently moved in and out, her heartbeat matched it, faster with every inhalation, slower with exhalation. Blood coursed through her veins, fast then slow then fast again with every beat of her heart. Electricity zapped along her nerves causing muscles to pull, push, and shift in nearly imperceptible movements.
“You’re doing it again, Tanya,” a quiet voice pulled her out of her meditation. She started, knocking the book on her lap to the floor where it landed with a muffled thud. “I don’t understand how you do that,” Diane whispered, as she placed her own books on the hardwood table and sat down on the mismatched chair next to Tanya. “It’s like you go into a trance or something. You’re here but no one is home.”
“It’s called meditation, you should try it sometime,” Tanya mumbled as she attempted to cover a yawn with a hand while arching her back and stretching out ridiculously long legs and arms. She hadn’t realized she had been waiting in the still library long enough for her to fall so deeply into her subconscious mind and body. “You’re late.”
“Yep,” Diane said then pulled two large travel mugs from her bag, “the line at the café was ridiculously long.”
“You brought coffee? All is forgiven!” Tanya grabbed at one of them and popped open the sealed top. “Mmm, hazelnut,” she took a long drink and sighed. “Okay,” Tanya glanced at her watch, “I have to leave in about six hours, so do you wanna focus on bio or lit?”
“Bio, we’ve got that test on tomorrow. Your work hours have gotten weird, what do you even do there?”
“I switched to working the street rather than stare at a screen so it’s just wandering around and telling off people for trespassing.” Diane gave Tanya a long skeptical look then sighed and then flipped open a heavy textbook to a chapter near the middle.
“What’s the pain pathway and how does it work in the nervous system?”
Tanya stepped carefully into the alleyway. She should have waited for Dan but she had felt something that didn’t belong in the concrete jungle of the city. She was still a journeyman, not even an acolyte yet, working without a teacher was dangerous, but people had been hurt by things they couldn’t describe and this was what he was training her to do.
The only warning she had was a small huff followed by something furry and dense ramming into her side. Tanya flew through the air and hit the brick wall with her shoulder. “That’s going to bruise something fierce,” she muttered to herself and used the wall to climb back to her feet. In the poor alleyway light she could barely see the outline of a large canine. It growled then launched itself at her again. Not taken completely by surprise this time she spun to the left and reached out to grab the fur on its shoulders, pulling herself onto its back so she was straddling it. The canine shook itself so wildly that any thought of reaching for her knives was dismissed. “Whelp, here goes nothing,” she struggled to dig her hands deeper into its fur while using her legs to keep herself on its back and away from its snapping jaw or sharp claws. The fur was thick, dirty, and matted so that catching even a fingertip against the skin would have been near impossible in the best of circumstances. “Come on!” she grunted in pain as the beast threw itself against the wall, crushing her leg with its heavy body. Her hands began to feel hot as the hair on her arms and head stood on end. The creature’s fur was too tangled to respond readily but it tried, giving her a few millimeters of extra space to work with. A faint ozone smell gathered around them and the air crackled. She felt the leg of her jeans shredding as it was rubbed against the bricks just before she felt the sharp sting of hundreds of jagged edges grate and tear at her skin. She clenched her jaw tight, not now, focus! Finally, her fingers brushed against something more solid than fur and she channeled all the electric energy she could into the canine’s nervous system. It roared once then crumpled.
Tanya fell from its back, rolling several times before finally coming to rest on her back, her breath coming in quick, deep gasps. Muscles twitched and trembled all along her body in response to the left-over static that seemed to jump and sizzle across all her nerves. She felt like she had been hit by a bus. Using that much energy at once shocked her system almost as much as the thing she channeled it into. She closed her eyes to focus on her breathing, bringing it back down to a normal rhythm and calming her heart and her frazzled nerves.
She was still lying on her back when she heard gravel crunching under boots. They stopped right next to her torso and she resisted the urge to open her eyes immediately.
“You look a mess, Tanya. What the hell happened?” A deep, masculine voice asked from six feet above her. She waved in what she assumed was the direction of the still creature, wincing as the movement pulled at her injured shoulder. A silent moment then, “ah. I see.” Concern touched the edge of his voice, “can you stand?” he asked from much closer to her head. She cracked open one eye. He was kneeling over her, his long face hardly more than shadows in the faint light filtering down the alley. It didn’t take much imagination for her to see the deep lines in forehead or worry in his brown eyes. She sighed before reaching her uninjured arm up for him to grab and help her sit up.
“Hey, Dan, you missed the fun,” she told him. She saw him looking at her leg, and answered the obvious question, “my leg’s a bit torn up.” She twisted to get a better look at the outside of her left leg. She moved her foot around in circles, fascinated by the way the muscles pulled and shifted. It hurt, but no more than her shoulder did. She used her good arm and leg to push herself up. “Right shoulder, left leg, at least I’m even.”
“That’s one way to look at it,” he mused. “Sorry, I lost track of time.” She waved his apology away. They both knew it wouldn’t have mattered much. He was much better at tracking and doing things from a distance, the glass cannon type. She was the tank.
“I left early anyway. Felt that thing nearby and didn’t want to let it get too far.” She gingerly put some of her weight on her left leg, wincing again at the pain, but it wasn’t as bad as it had been even a minute ago. One of the benefits of her talent with the energy that zipped through nerves and muscles was she could turn some of those nerves off and on. Most of it was subconscious, but her control was better now that she was using the ability daily. Small adjustments in the nerve pathways meant she could ignore it. For a time at least.
Dan held out an arm for her to lean on then led her over to the large creature against the wall. “What is it?” She asked. He pulled out a small flashlight and kneeled next to the creature. The light focused on its face. It looked like a dog in general shape, but its snout was much longer and broader than any normal canine. Its fur was a dark gray, mottled with spots of bare skin along its muzzle and side. Everything about it was exaggerated, like a caricature artist had drawn a demon dog and it somehow came to life.
“I’m not sure, I haven’t seen anything like it in real life,” he answered, while she slowly moved closer to it, “or smelled anything like it either.” He covered his mouth and nose with the collar of his shirt. looked down at her shirt then and noted the dirt and greasy smears ground into the fabric. She brought it close to her face to inspect the damage and began gagging at the strong smell of dirty, greasy, wet dog. Nothing was going to get that out. “Another outfit gone. That’s the fourth one this month.”
Dan continued to inspect the beast, “it may be of the Wild Hunt… or a pooka?” he mumbled to himself. “What do you know of pookas?” He moved the flashlight so it was focused on her rather than the smelly… pooka. The stains and bloody leg looked worse in the harsh, white light. The thoughtful frown changed to one of concern when he got a better look at the damage to her leg.
“’Tis only a flesh wound,” she joked as he pulled out a roll of gauze and tossed it to her. The gauze wouldn’t do much more than keep additional debris out, but it was better than nothing. Better first aid with ice packs and bandages would come after they finished tonight. She quickly wrapped her leg as best she could, tied a knot in the gauze, then gestured at the creature, “had enough time with the to be able to track it?”
“Yeah, I’ve got it,” he stood up, stretching and rolling his shoulders. “You sure you want to do this tonight?” he looked at her leg then up to her face. “If your leg-”
“If we wait this thing’s fellows may move off or attack someone else,” She didn’t add that she’d be lucky if she could move at all tomorrow. Her muscles were already complaining and she knew from experience it would only get worse.
“If you’re sure,” he sighed when he saw her nod. He took a deep breath then did something she couldn’t understand. Like her, he could do things most people considered impossible. A faint, purple mist gathered around his body, then with a gesture he directed it toward the dead creature. The mist seemed to sink into the dead pooka for a few heartbeats before it lifted away and stretched out into the night as a narrow ribbon. Dan set out slowly, giving her the opportunity to take the lead and set their pace.
Using Dan’s tracking mist they followed the route the monster had taken. It avoided main roads, sticking to roads or alleys with few lights and little traffic. After two miles the ribbon started to grow thicker and turn opaque. “I think we found its territory,” Dan whispered. The mist spread out to cover nearly the entire street, a smudge of smoke making the already rundown neighborhood they were in look like a horror movie set. Decrepit buildings and homes were separated by empty lots of land. All the yards were nearly uniform with bare dirt visible between clumps of weeds and detritus that the residents hadn’t bothered to put in the trash. It was an ideal place for things that didn’t belong but still needed to be near a source of food, humans.
Her turn. She took a deep breath before stretching out her senses. Her perspective shifted, as though she was viewing the environment from a few feet above her head in 360 degrees. The new view didn’t provide much more information than what her eyes had already seen, but at least she was less likely to be ambushed this time. Her hearing sharpened so that she could hear not only her heartbeat but also Dan’s and a few dozen small animals. Her mind automatically identified and dismissed irrelevant creatures too small to be another large creature like the pooka. Finally, her other sense, the one that felt for living things lifted away from her skin and slowly expanded in every direction. It confirmed the life she had already heard and dismissed, but just at the edge of what she could feel there was a large clump of things that didn’t fit anything she had encountered before tonight. She tapped Dan on the shoulder then pointed toward the source of energy. He nodded and took the lead as they carefully approached a large shed with broken windows and caving in walls on the far corner of a large plot of land. The house and shed had been abandoned long ago by the feel of the place.
Dan pulled what looked like a grenade from a pouch on the holsters crossing his chest. She gave him a questioning look, “new design,” he mouthed to her before tossing it into the center of the shed. His aim, as always, was spot on. “New design for what?” she whispered. Dan had a bad habit of testing new devices in the field. Sometimes they even worked that first use.
A soft hissing emanated from inside the building shortly followed by snuffling and huffing from several large mammals. The shed began to glow with a soft, ephemeral light, brightest near the center and weaker at the far edges. “Anything I should know before I charge in?” she asked as she pulled two knives from her belt. They were composed of a single piece of steel and veins of pure silver and iron along the length from the butt of the hilt to the tapering edges by way of a talented, magical, and expensive smith. They were worth every dollar. She needed silver and iron because she never knew what she was going to run into and some things from fairy tales were true, steel because there were things in the world even fairy tales couldn’t mention.
“Don’t breathe in the mist. It’s heavier than air so just try to stay on your feet,” he told her as he unslung a long rifle from his shoulder. She nodded sharply then dashed forward to jump through the window closest to them and hope there wasn’t anything sharp or painful for her to land on.
It had taken months of practice to move around without throwing up with her vision split in two. Running, jumping, leaping, fighting, all that had taken thousands more hours of practice to keep from falling flat on her face. She leaped up, grabbed the top edge of the window frame to swing her legs through and released, controlling her fall. Her sky-view vision shifted inside with her, allowing her to see everything in the room. There were three pookas circling around each other, snarling and snapping in a sloppy drunk sort of way. The largest, seemed the most coordinated and broke off from the other two when she crashed through the window. It locked eyes with her for the barest of seconds before it ran headlong for her.
Tanya pivoted on her right foot, using the injured leg to push off the wall next to her and leap over the creature. She twisted midair while jabbing her knives into the pooka’s skin and channeling a sharp jolt of energy through them and directly into nerves along the its spine. It dropped to the floor with muscles still twitching. Not dead, but that pooka appeared to be down for the moment. Which was good since she was using far more of her energy tonight than she had on any other mission. She pulled her knives from its hide, wiped them on its fur and turned to face the other two. The smallest one dropped with a heavy thud at the same time that the sharp echoing retort of Dan’s rifle reached Tanya’s enhanced ears, making them ring loudly. Another monster was out of the fight. That left her with the last one until he reloaded.
She stalked forward, approaching the drunken pooka straight on, and took her first steps into the mist from Dan’s grenade. The gauze did little to protect the injured left leg from the mist and it began to burn like she had dumped a full bottle of antiseptic on it. The sudden change in pain made her breath hiss through her teeth and her eyes begin watering. I’m gonna punch him. Hard. First, she needed to punch the pooka in front of her. Tanya closed her eyes to use only her clear, overhead vision which she shifted so that it focused forward on the creature in front of her. She turned her attention to her leg just long enough to turn off most of the pain receptors, she couldn’t afford the distraction. She struck at the pooka. It fell back on its haunches but whether from trying to move away from her or attack she didn’t know. She edged her way to its side, deeper into the painful mist, silvered knives weaved in front of her, as a warning that lunging at her would be painful. Two more steps into the mist and her left knee gave out without warning, sending her sprawling alongside the pooka, knocking the air from her lungs, and plunging her entirely into the mist. The knife in her left hand skittered away but she had gripped the other tightly. Without thought she lashed out. The knife found flesh and she weakly pushed energy through, hopefully enough to knock the creature out.
Her lungs ached, and he was forced to inhale. Immediately she felt her careful control of her mind break apart, her vision splintered into a thousand pieces, she lost track of what was happening. She was tired. Some small part of her mind told her she couldn’t fall asleep. Something bad would happen. Her thoughts drifted, disjointed. Dan. Dan would have to clean up. He was good at that. She heard another loud retort, distorted as though it was traveling through water, and felt something heavy fall on her already damaged leg. She screamed. Her mind fractured and then she was falling down down down into a black oblivion.
The shock of freezing cold brought Tanya out of her unconsciousness. She tried to stand up only to have her legs slip beneath her on a smooth surface. Her head dipped into icy water. A bathtub. She sat up, moving slower this time. Water streamed down her face and neck and sparks jumped along water and her exposed skin while she tried to place where she was. The walls and lighting were familiar. Her bathroom. Her bathtub. Filled with water and ice. She turned to the open doorway knowing she would find Dan nearby. He stood in the hallway with the bottom half of his legs soaked and wearing rubber boots and gloves. Hasty safety measures when dealing with someone who lashed out with electricity, not a bad idea. She glanced down and noted he had tossed her in fully dressed and the water was already turning a distinctly unpleasant shade of gray with swirls of bright red blood near her feet.
“Ice? Really?” She sank deeper into the bath, not bothering to fight the shivering and reveling in the numbing sensation edging its way along her bruised and bruising skin and tense muscles.
“You like ice packs, this seemed more efficient,” he hesitantly stepped toward the doorway, but stopped when she raised her hand, not sure what she was going to do.
“I’m still angry at you,” he merely nodded, expecting that from her, “a little better warning next time?” He shrugged and nodded again. He would remember for a week. Maybe two. They both knew it, but he would try. “Any chance there could be warm towels and PJs after this?” she gestured to the water.
“As you wish,” he said then laughed when a bar of soap bounced off the door jamb next to his head. The door shut as he moved away from her bathroom and she heard the dryer turn on a minute later. After what seemed like an hour later, but was probably only twenty minutes she was dry, warm, and tending to her leg. A quick glance at a clock told her it was nearly 6am. On Thursday. She had that bio test in four hours. Shit. Dan saw her shoulders slump and took a guess, “Test today?” She nodded sullenly, finishing up with the ace wrap. “You’re young, but you’ll need to choose soon, Tanya. You can’t continue to live two different lives.”
“I know. I just… I don’t know yet, Dan.”
Tanya hissed when she felt something connect hard with her leg. Her left leg. Her still shredded left leg. She looked to the side where Diane was glaring at her. “What was that for?” she mouthed silently. “You fell asleep. Again,” she hissed. Tanya just sighed then looked back at her test. She had just started the long answer questions and only had fifteen minutes left. Right. She could do this. What is nociception? Describe its pathway and process using as much detail as possible. She giggled to herself, if there was something she was intimately aware of at this moment, it was the perception of pain. Putting pencil to paper she began to write, the motions of her hand matching time to the throbbing in her leg.