Chapter 6: Hong Kong

The Orc general was just down the corridor. Lei looked at his compatriots. Nothing needed to be said to this group. They all knew where he was and what challenges he presented to them. Lei felt the excitement amongst his team. It had taken them hours of hard fighting through a veritable army to reach this point. They were keenly aware that they were preparing to confront possibly the most powerful Orc any of them had ever seen. Lei himself was unmoved. A victor of countless battles, he knew winning a battle like this would be all about preparation. His group had collected what they could from the bodies of their enemies to supplement their dwindling supplies. The hope now was that it would be enough to deal with their opponent.

Lei wondered if he could get away with a cigarette. He had been craving one for about the last hour but conditions had permitted it. He debated lighting one now. Part of him knew that the edginess he was feeling from the cravings would be of some assistance for the battle ahead but the cravings were strong. Lei looked at his team as they each went through their preparations. Hong was administering blessings to ensure that his team was performing at their best. His other companions were busy applying their poisons, potions and sharpening their weapons. There was something comforting about the way everyone had his or her own rituals. Having fought together for as long as they had, Lei knew he could trust his friends to perform when the battle started. Despite the occasional setbacks, they had always ultimately triumphed and he had high hopes that this battle would be the final in their long war. Lei could feel his hands tremble a little. Perhaps that cigarette would be a good idea after all.

Lok recognised the signs as he slapped the back of his friend’s head. “Your cigarette can wait. Let’s get this done.” Lok had known Lei most of his life, far beyond this campaign, and he knew the benefits of having Lei slightly edgy. Besides, also craving a cigarette, Lok took some perverse pleasure in their both suffering over something so minor after all that they had been through. Lei tossed him a look that could kill but Lok was immune. “I’m in the same boat as you so let’s just get this done.”

Lei took a calming breath and stared at the massive door. Beyond it, their soon-to-be-dead target would be ready for them. The unofficial leader of this motley crew Lei could tell his team was now waiting for him. “Ready?” The team agreed as they started towards the door. Their weapon’s primed; all were focused and ready for battle. They would either emerge heroes, or they would be dead. It was that simple. Shen, had been elected to open the door. Being the strongest and most armoured of them all, his main task, if there were any surprises beyond the gate, would be to deal with them. Shen pulled at the door and rushed into the room. Then, darkness.

Lei could hear screams erupt from those all around him. He threw his headset off in disgust and stared at the barely visible computer monitor that was now sitting lifeless before him in the pitch black gaming cafe. “Fuck.” Lei allowed himself a moment of frustration. It took a moment longer to really register that the entire parlour was without power. People were beginning to re-join the real world, some with genuine cries of anguish. Probably not all gamers either. Some were likely students doing last minute work on their assignments. Lei had sympathy for them. His own time as a student would be forever with him. That horrible feeling when something went wrong and you knew it had been a very long while since you last backed up your work. He looked to where Lok was sitting. Despite the darkness that filled the room he knew Lok would be smiling at this situation. It was just his sense of humour.

“I wonder if Shen had the same problem?” Lok asked as he absent-mindedly stretched his neck.

Shen was on a trip to Japan and had set himself up in an Internet café somewhere so they could all play their regular game. Lok started to laugh. “He probably charged into the room all alone and wondered where his back up was.” Lei had to chuckle at that idea. He let out a long sigh as he looked around the room. He had not seen it this dark before. Not in Hong Kong. His watch was the only thing offering a faint glow. An old wind up timepiece that was a gift from his father to him years ago it seemed out of place in this room of computers, but that made it work for Hong Kong. It was a little shy of one o’clock in the morning. Time tended to drift away when they were gaming together.

The last few hours, though fun were now a complete waste of time. They would have to complete the raid all over again. Lei could hear the annoyed voices from people around the room. His eyes were beginning to adjust to the lack of proper light in the room. Everything was dead, the light, computers, music players. Even the waving cat on the counter had ceased its simple constant activity. If it hadn’t been for the moon outside they would have seen none of this. The chatter of voices had risen as customers became aware that the problem seemed to not just be restricted to just this parlour. Lok, sitting at the terminal next to him rubbed his eyes and replaced his glasses. “I guess we’re ok for that cigarette now.” He stood up and stretched. He grabbed his cigarettes and lighter from the desk and headed through the darkness where the dim light from the skies illuminated the street. As Lei approached the counter he smiled at the struggling attendant. Some customers were engaging in arguments with him, demanding their money back. Lei and his friends placed some money on the counter. The attendant was only too pleased to accept the money as the friends exited the store. People were slowly slipping out, and the street was becoming more illuminated as residents outside started lighting old style paper lanterns.

“We could have gotten off without paying.” Lok handed around cigarettes, “And besides we never really finished it all, so he would get the money when we come back and do it again.” Lei wasn’t going to bite. Lok’s family had come from more money than the rest of their group and as such, never really appreciated how valuable every single dollar was when running a business, especially in Hong Kong. Hong cast his eyes around the street. “You notice how quiet it is?” Hong was right. Sure, there were people talking, but in a city like Hong Kong people were always talking. Everything else was quiet. There was no music, cars or even computers. Just voices. More paper lanterns were starting to appear on balconies. People were so confused that Lei wondered if they had taken any time to stop and consider just how beautiful Hong Kong looked.

“I heard something like this happened here last week. They couldn’t figure out what was wrong.” Hong drew back on his cigarette. “This city is falling to pieces.”

“Central government is killing this place.” Lok observed. Lei had to find this funny. Most of them really didn’t know Hong Kong before the handover but blaming the mainland government had become a bit of a thing with people. Though Lei knew the older generations who still remembered the old times were notoriously tight lipped when it came to voicing such criticism. “I wonder how bad it is?” Lei looked up and down the street, as he drew deeply on the cigarette. More and more people were starting to appear on the streets, confused and unsure what was causing it all. Lei fumbled for his phone, wondering how widespread the blackout was. When he finally retrieved it, he was a little disconcerted to see it was also dead. All of a sudden the lack of power in the street and shops had lost its beauty. Lei was suddenly worried for his family. “Can I borrow your phone? I want to see if it’s the same at home.” Lok rummaged though his bulging pockets for his own phone. He drew it out amidst several tangled cables and headphones. Lei looked on, a little impatient as his friend tried to disentangle his phone. Finally having untangled his phone, Lok opened the cover. “Must have forgot to charge it.” Lok unconcerned, took a long drag on his cigarette as he pushed the phone back into his over already overcrowded pocket. Lei felt a chill run up his spine.

All of a sudden a shimmering glow appeared at the top of the street. It appeared half in front of a building and half shimmering into the street. At first people hadn’t noticed it but as the light was continuing to grow, people drew back from the light, the confusion of the situation guiding their actions. Lok was the first one of the three to notice it, lighting his second cigarette as he walked in the direction of the light. “Check this out.” The other friends followed. They walked around the cars that had come to a halt when the power died. A wind was picking up, bringing with it a strange smell and it seemed to be coming from the shimmer.

Lei had stopped a few meters behind his friends out the front of a phone store. The phones in the shop window were dead. They should have been charged enough to not be reliant on the power grid. At least one single phone out of all the ones on display, but they were just lifeless pieces of plastic now. “Guys, I think we should go.”

Lok and Hong were standing before the shimmer, which by now had grown to the size of a large barn door. Lok could see Lei’s discomfort. He felt it too, but he wasn’t one to miss an opportunity to show off. “Don’t be such a baby.” He held out his hand at the edge of the shimmer. “It’s just a light.” And with that, Lok thrust his hand through the wall of light.

His hand didn’t come out the other side. Hong who had been standing to the side trying to determine the source of the light jerked back with as the hand he was expecting failed to materialise. It wasn’t that his hand couldn’t be seen, Lok’s hand hadn’t come out the other side at all. Lok drew his hand out of the shimmer as if it had touched scalding water. Shocked. Out of everything that he had thought might happen his whole hand disappearing wasn’t it and he jerked it back, relieved to find his hand still attached. After he collected himself his big grin was back. “That was so cool.”

Hong couldn’t believe it. “Do it again.” Growing more fearless in the attentions of the growing number of onlookers, Lok moved his arm once again into the shimmer and he pulled it out again. Whatever this was, it was something amazing.

Lei hand started to move again towards the shimmer. He was still afraid, but it seemed too incredible an opportunity to miss out on. Hong tried sending his arm through the other direction but it passed harmlessly through the light. Disappointed, he came around to the front of the shimmer, determined to have a go. He stuck his arm in, all the way up to his shoulder. People were crowding around watching and laughing at the friends, putting things through the shimmer, some limbs, others whatever objects they could find. Lei joined his friends. He was about to have a go, when Hong decided to take the plunge no one had yet made and he moved his two friends aside. “Watch this.” Hong leant forward moving his head through the shimmer, dunking his head into a sideways swimming pool as people looked on laughing at the sight. It was then that everything went to hell.

Hong’s decapitated body fell to the ground. The creatures on the other side seemed to take that moment as the signal to charge. Their hulking green bodies came hurtling through the shimmer, their weapons drawn and swinging. Lok had been shunted aside as the creatures came charging through, falling directly into Lei. It probably saved their lives as the force knocked the pair behind the gateway. The creatures slowly got their bearings their attacks became more concentrated and savage began to swing less wildly, much more deliberate. Swords, axes, and other frightening weapons were leaving a trail of bloodied corpses in their wake. Hidden from the invaders immediate view, the two friends looked on in horror as the marching horde pushed the decapitated body of Hong out of their way like garbage at their feet.

Screams rang out as the people fell away under the onslaught of the hulking creatures. The fleeing crowd rushing headfirst into the approaching crowd that wanted to see what was happening, creating a blockage of people that made the slaughter that much easier. Lei helped his friend up off the ground and both of them forced themselves through an alleyway tucked behind the glowing doorway, between two buildings. The stench of the alley was terrible but the two friends barely noticed, their survival instinct too powerful. The screams behind them urged them onward away from the carnage and the opening at the far end of the alley promised them salvation.

They broke from the alleyway. The urgency of their escape in stark contrast to the bemused looks on the faces of those oblivious to what was happening on the far side of the buildings. Cars lay idle and people were wandering around spouting theories on what was going on. The only suggestion of the horrors nearby was the ever-growing sound of battle.

“What the hell was that?” Lei looked back down the alley from whence they had come. Lok couldn’t answer, vomiting as the shock of what had happened was starting to reveal itself in his body. Lei looked back at the small gap, fortunately the creatures seemed too broad to be able to fit through the narrow space. A red flash from somewhere at the end of the alleyway punctuated by what seemed to be people screaming in agony.

Recovering, Lok grabbed his friend and dragged him in the direction of the Western Harbour Crossing. “I don’t know. But we need to leave.”

Lei offered no resistance to the idea but felt guilty as he pushed pass some people starting to try and deduce the source of the sounds. “We need to warn people.”

Lok was already moving in the direction of the crossing. “And say what exactly? And Hong Kong is being invaded? We can’t do anything. We just need to get out of here.” Though Lei knew he was right, he felt guilty as he allowed his friend to drag him away. By now other people were starting to move in the same direction as the friends, heading away from the sounds of battle, whether they clearly understood the reason why or not.

“Well, we have to do something.” It was then that Lei noticed the city lights. In the distance they were still on. “The power is still working there. I need to call home.” The friends ran in the direction of the light, a task made easier as they were moving with the mass of people, surging on in the darkness. There were more sounds behind them, not just the screams of people but now what sounded like animal calls. Strange animals and their shrieks touched on a primal feeling deep in the pit of Lei’s stomach. Lok was looking back over his shoulder from time to time. There seemed to be fires breaking out behind them and his mind was processing the events of the last few minutes trying to make sense of what was happening. “You really think they were Orcs?”

“I have no idea, but they didn’t look like people.”

“You think that maybe we’ve been gassed?” Lok was grasping now, desperately trying to find a way for what was happening to be explained.

“What?”

“They aren’t real. They can’t be. But we were playing a video game with orcs, the lights go out and then there are orcs.”

“So you think we have been gassed?” Lei had been trying to reconcile what had been happening but till then it hadn’t occurred to him that it might all be in his head.

“Drugged, or gassed. It makes more sense than anything else I can think of.”

“Who did it then?”

Lok looked around. He wasn’t certain if the government was listening but he wasn’t taking the chance.

Lei could see from his face what he was suggesting. “Are you serious?” They stopped again. It had only been a short sprint, but neither had the energy for consistent running.

Lok pulled his friend into an alcove. His breathing was laboured. “ I need to get in shape.”

“You really think that they would do this to us?”

Lok didn’t have time to answer the question as he had a realisation. “The lights. The electricity. It keeps moving away from us.”

Lei hadn’t noticed it until that moment but now; he could see it was true. A greater feeling of dread was gripping him. Whatever was causing the power to go out seemed to be creeping further outward. “We need to get to where there is some power. I have to call my family.”

“Me too.” Lok slapped his friend on the back indicating that he was ready to press on. The pair pushed there way back into the street and moved with the growing wave of humanity moving off the island.

The sound of the police helicopter approaching the area caused the pair to look up. People kept moving but there was an instantaneous feeling of relief as everyone realised that the authorities were already responding to the madness. People kept moving but there was an excited chattering. Surely if the police were responding, the army would be close behind. The optimism was short lived however, as the same helicopter that looked so impressive moments earlier, upon entering the area of the blackout simply lost all power. Its rotors slowly came to a halt and it seemed to hang in the air for a brief second, finally falling like the massive dead weight it was.

They could hear the sound of metal scraping along the sides of the buildings and glass shattering as they lost sight of the falling helicopter amongst the buildings of Hong Kong, punctuated by an explosion. Whatever hopes this was all just some terrible nightmare; Lei had been clinging to finally disappeared. He knew at that moment that this situation was real. There was no way his imagination could have come up with something so horrible.

They were coming up on Des Voeux Road, the last major cross street before they got to the entrance to the Harbour crossing and their way off the island. They could see that the blackout seemed to have halted a little way onto the bridge. The lights on the bridge and the city beyond a beacon of hope shining through the narrow street ahead of them. The mass of people had grown, a veritable tsunami of bodies, most not quite understanding what was going but, but understanding enough to know leaving the island was in their best interest. Lei stumbled as he ran, bodies crushed in the panic of the mob and never able to find their feet again. It made him physically ill to look at, so he pretended that they were anything else and pushed on. Behind them, the fires of the city were growing. The combination of high-rise buildings and lack of electricity had impeded the response and with the panic in the streets it would have been impossible for the fire department to respond.

Again came the roar of the strange beasts, but this time the direction of the screams was coming from Des Voeux Road. How did they get ahead of them? All of a sudden, several very large creatures tore through the crowds of people trying desperately to cross the street. They reminded Lei of dinosaurs however these ones had archers mounted on their backs firing arrows into the masses of people who now were now running into each other to try and escape the carnage. The beasts took up position at the end of the road and bottled the people in trapping them between the approaching ground forces and themselves. With nowhere to run, people were falling over themselves and each other creating even more chaos. Flames erupted from the sky above the crowd and rained down fire filling the air with screams and the smell of burning flesh. Lok and Lei, having missed the initial attack, had enough presence of mind to hug the walls waiting for any sort of window to present itself for their escape. The lights in the distance testing the pair’s patience as they beckoned them with their promise of safety.

The sound of gunfire broke the enemies focus, as archers fell from the backs of their beasts, surprised from behind by a resistance they had failed to consider. Lei assumed that it was the local police that were finally responding. Though outmatched, the bullets from the police were causing the invading forces to respond to the more obvious threat. The beasts broke from their attack and left a window of opportunity for those still surviving, to run from the street. Seizing this moment, the pair lunged in a desperate race to get across the road. The stench of death clung to the thick smoke that had settled along the ground and both had to fight the urge to vomit. Lei could see ground troops moving in a charge towards the crowd. The street was a slaughterhouse. Before they could clear the street the gunfire ended abruptly and the invaders turned their attention back to the masses. Lei knew that if they didn’t get across De Voeux Road they would likely die.

Lei had never truly understood what the term wall of humanity meant until now. The people were crushing each other as they pressed to get away. The fire from the sky had stopped but the damage had been done. A little girl screamed. Being knocked back and forth she was bloodied and clearly distressed. The mass of people had prevented her from falling to the ground but she was still at the mercy of the people. Lei grabbed her, pulling her up into his arms. In doing so, he came very close to falling but Lok grabbed him to steady him. They pressed on, the girl heavy in Lei’s arms was crying but he held on to her and she him. Lok encouraged his companions towards the bodies of the dead people.

“The fire!” Lei warned.

“- Has stopped. If it’s a mage, he would aim for another area where there are more people.” Lok dragged the two into the heart of carnage. Lok was right, the crowd thinned out a little as they climbed over the remains of the people. Lei tried to imagine they were playing the game that they had just been playing. If they were in a game then they just had to treat it like one of their fights. The bad guys would attack to a pattern. Usually not where they had previously attacked. Lei knew it wasn’t a game but just the notion of it seemed to calm him a little.

Lok reached down and grabbed a large knife from the body of one of the archers that had fallen. Lei wasn’t certain his friend would be able to do something with it but he felt better for him being armed. At this time they had almost made it across the street. The dinosaurs were now marching in towards the people, the remaining archers trying to establish the kill zones as their ground forces blocked off the escape. The edge of the street grew tantalizingly close but as the archers were bringing down more people, it was looking less likely that they would make it. Lei shifted the girl to his other side to offer whatever protection his body could afford her.

Lok screamed as an arrow tore through his flesh. It had gone clear through his upper arm but somehow he fought the urge to stop running. Lei wanted to check on his friend but the concern for the child in his arms spurred them on. Lok grabbed at the shaft imbedded in him.

“Leave it in.” Lei yelled. Fighting instinct, Lok left the arrow and pressed on. Both new that last few meters matter more than anything. If they could get across this street, the archers to their right wouldn’t be able to see them. They could now see clearly the overpass that was the Western Harbour crossing that would lead them off the island. The sounds of those who had been trapped in the area behind them filled the air and Lei couldn’t stop the tears that streamed down his face. His chest constricted, his arms and the girl they cradled felt like lead weights but still he pressed on for at that moment all that mattered was survival.

Moving along the underpass that led to the bridge, the people were starting to thin out. A combination of the massacre, and exhaustion had reduces the wave of humanity to a group of people that barely looked alive. The road had opened from the buildings and despite the abandoned cars. People were able to move more freely. The bridge stretched out across the water, it’s lights promised the end to the nightmare. Whatever was causing the blackout seemed to have stopped about halfway across the bridge. As they followed the on ramp, Lok fell; the bleeding and exertion had taken its toll. Someone stumbled around him stepping on him but not stopping. Lei was determined to not leave his friend. He held the girl in his arms firmly as he pushed back against the people to gather his friend. Lok, was looking pale. Lei tried to pull him to his feet. He didn’t move. They had come so far and he couldn’t fail now, just a little more walking and they would be across the bridge. He pulled again at his friend. Desperate of a sign that Lok wasn’t dead. Lei felt useless and weak, people were knocking against him, a mere obstruction to the safety they all pursued. He was frustrated now with his own weaknesses, screaming out loud for some hidden reserve of strength. If he lived through this he would never be this helpless again. Lok regained consciousness and pulled himself to his feet. He gave a desperate pull. His arm felt like it was being wrenched from it’s socket but Lok staggered to his feet.

All of a sudden a solider was beside them. So concerned with his friend, Lei hadn’t noticed the fact that soldiers were now running down the ramp towards the battle.

“Are you able to walk?” The soldier seemed younger than Lei but wore the uniform of an army medic.

Lei could barely speak. “His arm.” It seemed redundant as the young medic was already bandaging his friend’s arm as best as he could amidst the chaos. “What is happening?”

“Head over the bridge.” The medic had finish and was examining the young girl as best as he could despite her unwillingness to relinquish her hold of Lei. “We have people on the other side that will get you all to safety.” The girl looked to the young soldier, her grip loosened a little from around Lei’s neck. The sight of the soldier offered a degree of reassurance that had been missing for all of them. The soldier performed a cursory examination of the young girl as best as he could without disengaging her from Lei’s arms. Satisfied there was nothing life threatening, he stood up and adjusted his gear. “Get moving.”

The three of them staggered onto the main road of the bridge. Lei guessed that these soldiers heading into battle were those based out at Stonecutter’s Island. They were taking up positions on the overpass looking into the city and the sounds of small arms fire erupted sporadically as they tried to discourage the invaders from pursuing the survivors who were able to break from the buildings. As he ran the sounds of battle were lost over the sound of Lei’s beating heart. He only once looked back at the city. It was on fire. Buildings aflame everywhere like giant candles illuminating the sky. The Jewel of the Orient was now nothing more than a burning battlefield.

As the bridge crawled out over the water, Lok seemed to get stronger, sensing safety. The bandage had seemed to halt the blood loss and restore some vitality to him but he still stumbled as he walked. Lei slowed down and supported his friend in one hand and held the young girl in the other hand until their progress slowed to a desperate trudge. The other end of the bridge was illuminated by military and rescue vehicles setting up a base for coordination as the tanks roared up the road and onto the bridge. Soldiers were manually clearing the cars from the road to allow passage for the tanks to join the battle. Lei’s warning to them was lost in the roar of the engines but it didn’t matter, Lei knew it was too late as one by one, the tanks fell silent on the bridge and the blackout circle started expanding once again onto the other side of the river.

Chapter 5: South Dakota

Anna’s hatch pulled into the parking spot at the garage. It had been a long day and she was looking forward to seeing Maria. As she stepped out the car, she saw Hanska sitting with Robert Quickfoot in the office. The pair was in deep discussion. Hanska had certainly grown stronger over the last few weeks. The returning to the old ways had seen him regain some of the lustre of his youth and he was engaging with many of the other elders. Always in secret he never once told her what he was talking about. Although she was curious, she knew that when Hanska was ready to tell her, he would. She decided to leave the pair and headed to find Maria.

“They’ve been talking non stop for a while now.” Maria pulled herself out from underneath the old jeep. Covered in grease, the cleanest part of her was her mechanical leg. She pulled herself up and gave Anna a kiss. Though Anna was careful not to get any oil on her, she did find Maria very attractive when she had been working like this.

“Any idea what they’re talking about?” Anna followed her out the back as Maria removed her overalls.

“No. My Lakota is as good as your Spanish.” Maria, she smiled as she put the overalls into her locker. Maria had three brothers who were all into cars, their friends were into cars and she spent time around them. Her time in the Marines had allowed her to expand her practical experience and she found working around cars an enjoyable experience. It made her feel useful and Robert was too smart a businessman to turn down that much experience.

Anna started to recap the events of the day. Though Maria never stopped moving, Anna knew that she was listening. Maria stood before the washbasin at the back of the garage, removing the grease and oil from her hands. Scrubbing hard she watched Anna in the mirror. A smile on her face as Anna tried to recount the day’s activities in the most positive way that she could. Hope and optimism were important parts of Anna’s approach to life and Maria like that she would find a way to put a shine on almost anything. There were days when it had been a blessing.

Anna was so wrapped up in her story that it took a moment to realise that Maria was no longer listening, or washing her hands. Rather she was staring at the black shape in the mirror creeping towards the pair.

Maria was reacting before Anna was even certain what was happening. The giant cat like creature leapt towards her. Maria had pulled her from the creature’s path towards the door to the office, the force of her action nearly tearing Anna’s arm from her shoulder. The creature in mid flight unable to adjust its movement mid flight landing on the vacant spot that moments ago had been occupied by Anna. The pair moved as quickly as they could. Anna felt a nauseous feeling wash over her. A deep sickness that seemed to drain the energy from her, if it hadn’t been for Maria she would already been dead. She stumbled into the office as Maria forced the door closed behind her as the cat charged.

Inside Hanska and Robert had heard the noise and had come running towards the same door. Hanksa was a little older than Robert and was a little slow to reach the door. Robert though, instinctively braced the door with Maria as the cat creature slammed into it from the inside the garage. The force of the impact was strong enough to cause the doorframe to crack under the onslaught. Hanska added his weight to the door but after the third successive charge it was clear that the door would not hold for long. Anna tried to help but she stared to vomit. Like a toxic well had erupted inside of her, she felt awash in the filth. Instinctively she knew it was from the cat. Correction. Cats.

The window that overlooked the gas station shattered as a second cat leapt through the glass and the situation went from bad to worse very quickly. The door itself started to splinter from the impact of the animal in the garage. Anna pushed herself against the door. Sick as she was, she had no intention of doing nothing.

The extra body against the door gave Maria the moment that she needed. She abandoned her effort to hold the door, lunging for the shotgun that rested beneath the counter. It had been a while since it had been used but Maria, when she had taken the job, had made a point of returning the weapon to the best condition that she could. After all, no marine would ever let a weapon in his or her care, rust. It was an old twin barrelled weapon and she prayed it would be enough. The cat that had come through the window had been stunned a little from the impact and the confusion as the shelf that it had landed on collapsed beneath its weight. Maria made the decision, the counter providing marginal cover from the cat in the store, she screamed for the group to move from the door. Robert helped Anna out of the way as the cat charged once again, breaking through the unsupported door.

Maria fired twice as best as she could into the body of the creature. Far closer than one should ever use a shotgun, the recoil and heat from the blast caused her to flinch. Hanksa had been on the wrong side of the shotgun and Maria heard him grunt. She knew he had been hit but she prayed that it would only be a grazing. The creature dropped to the floor and Maria turned her attention to the cat on the other side of the counter. It had recovered and had proceeded to leap onto the counter. Maria would not have the time to reload. Instead she used the shotgun as a club and swung it at the head of the cat as hard as she could. It did practically nothing.

Outside, people were coming to see what was happening. The cat gave them no mind though, its attention focused on Maria it swung its paw slashing out at her. The counter was a little narrow and the cat, in an effort to maintain it’s balance was not able to extend fully, but still connected, it claws not in the right angle barely grazed her but the force of the blow knocked her across into the register and she fell to the floor. The cat ignored her and leapt again through the empty door where Hanska, Anna and Robert had fled. It landed gracefully, it’s eyes capturing the movement of Hanska and Robert moving behind the jeep that Maria had been working on.

Anna thrust the large screwdriver with all the force she could muster into the animal’s head. Pressed up against the edge of the door she had been holding her breath, hoping that their desperate plan might work. The cat howled in pain, turning to face it’s attacker. It was the first time that Anna had really looked at the creature. The crystal in its forehead, glowing a hot, red colour. Anna felt the nausea returning as she tried to get some distance. The screwdriver had gone in through the animal’s neck towards the brain but had clearly not gone deep enough. The creature would likely die, but not before it killed Anna. In the mirror’s reflection Anna could see what she thought was the police, running, armed towards where she was but there was no way they’d be there in time.

The cat lunged for Anna as the shotgun rang out again. Torn and bloody, and a little dazed, Maria stood in the door and fired the second shot at the creature. The first had been at the creature’s outstretched leg as it swung at Anna, stopping it clear of its intended target. The second shot, into the creature’s head, finishing the job that Anna had started. There was no mistake this time. The creature fell to the floor dead. Maria, stood in the doorway like a warrior of old, bloodied but victorious and for a moment Anna saw a time long ago. A similar scene, etched in her minds eye. She stood in a land of blood and fire.

A hand grabbed her and she returned instantly to the garage. She could hear the voices of the concerned officer but they were lost on her as she stared into the crystal in the cat’s forehead. Instead of the hot red, it was now like it’s host, lifeless.

Chapter 4: Seattle

Xed pulled up when he saw the police cars. A crowd had formed on the sidewalk, looking at the house trying to get a glimpse of the gruesome sight that lay within. An officer flagged him to the side of the road and Xed stepped from his vehicle. He spoke briefly with the officer and was escorted under the taped off area. As he neared the house, Xed caught the distinct smell of vomit in the air. A few officers were standing around, clearly traumatised by what they had seen in the house.

Ronald met Xed, at the door to the house. An old friend from high school days, Ronald had become a homicide detective in Seattle and though they met up for drinks every so often, they had seen each other less and less, especially in light of the amount of time Xed was spending in the Cascades. He was surprised to get the call and even more surprised to ask him to immediately get his gear and come to a crime scene. Ronald explained the rules as he led Xed into the house. What greeted Xed was the worst sort of carnage that could be seen.

The entire family was dead. Torn apart by vicious animals. Far to frenzied to be any sort of dog, the animals had ensured that there was nothing left alive in the house. They had come in through the glass door that overlooked the jungle gym in the back garden. The glass had offered no protection from the animals. Xed looked at the bodies. He had been in war zones, seen friend blown to pieces and had become accustomed to scenes like this. Never from animals, though. Never like this. Ronald led Xed through the house to where the baby, or what was left of her remained in the bed. The animals had not eaten, just attacked. Xed left the house and headed to the back. Ronald spoke but Xed barely listened. It turns out in the Seattle region there had been three attacks in the last forty-eight hours. This was by far the worst though. An entire family wiped out in one swoop. Neighbours had reported screams early this morning but by the time anyone went to see, the killing was finished. Xed remembered hearing on the news about something like this happening in Missoula. He knelt and studied the tracks of the animals. They were feline, sort of, and like nothing he had seen before. Coming from the reserve at the back of the house. Xed climbed the fence and found the tracks on the other side. Ronald didn’t speak as Xed went about his work.

After the war, Xed returned home and had gotten a job assisting researchers keep track of animals within the Northern Cascades. He had grown up with a grandfather and father that loved to hunt and Xed had been tracking animals in the wilds since he could remember. Xed stopped at the edge of the stream and studied the tracks. There were three and all of them were large predators. Ronald had started talking again. Everyone handled violence in his or her own way. Ronald had seen enough and he found talking kept his nerves under control. Xed was half listening. It was clear he was here to track the animals but it was the last statement from Ronald that was the most clear. Find them and stop them. Four other police officers had joined Ronald and Xed. Xed recognized Mackie. He had seen him in the Cascades hunting once or twice. He wasn’t certain about the other three but all looked like they had spent time getting shot at. Either way, these men looked steady and not afraid of a little rough living.

They talked briefly and plans were made to follow the tracks whilst they could. There was an aerial search going on but that was more to make people feel better than to yield results. Xed headed back to his car to get his gear. As he unlocked his cage and removed his rifle, he made a verbal list of additional supplies that they would need. Xed would start tracking with one of the other men. The others were going to get supplies and would join them soon after. Mackie knew what would be useful and ensure that the others didn’t overpack. Xed travelled with most of his gear ready to go. He liked to slip away sometimes and just lose himself in the Cascades for a few days and his job was such that he could justify it easily enough.

Xed returned to the tracks and headed off into the reserve. It was highly unlikely that the creatures would still be in the area and suburbia was the worst place to track but the creatures were heading north-east. It looked like Xed was going to the Cascades sooner than he had planned.

Chapter 3: Nebraska

There are many nocturnal hunters that can be found in the Nebraska National Forrest. As the sun sets, life begins for these creatures, all searching for the meal that will see them through another day or if they are the unlucky ones, providing sustenance for another animal to survive. This night though, instead of their usual behavior, they were all silent and very still. A faint glow had just appeared electrifying the air. From the expanding glow came the smell of putrid air that grew stronger as the glow became a door from this other world. To the animals in the immediate vicinity, it wasn’t a door, it was just danger, and each creature did it’s best to ensure that it would be protected from whatever this new threat was. Out of the glowing door, strode several goblins, armed with bows and covered in animal skins. They spread out and created a perimeter just short of the Gold Rush Byway, save for one who remained near the door. They nestled into the bushes and became very still. There were human settlements nearby and they knew that their mission required anonymity. After a minute of quiet observation, one of the creatures made a strange shrill whistle. The goblin near the gate went back through the door only to return a moment later. The door began to grow, and the animals of the forest retreated further into the darkness.

It only took a moment for the door to reach the required size and several orcs came from within. Each one held a robust chain and at the end of each chain was a large cat like creature. The creatures, about the size of a tiger, had glowing red eyes and a small crystal nestled in their forehead. They were docile but at the same time they carried a feeling around them of menace. The handlers held the animals more firmly as an older orc arrived through the gate. The cats straight away perked up, more alert and agitated, they began to exude that menace more potently than before. The old orc spoke to them in a strange tongue that held the cat’s attention. In all there were fifteen of the creatures.

The shrill whistle was heard again and moments later the lights from a car on the road illuminated the sky. It only lasted a moment but every creature tensed for combat. The light shifted and disappeared again leaving them alone with the darkness. The old orc gestured and a red dust appeared to come from his hand, traveling on the slight evening breeze and settled over the animals. The cats settled as each handler removed the chain from their necks. The cats seemed to sink deeper into their menace for a moment and sprang from their handlers. They headed off into the darkness, moving into groups of three. The old orc stood and considered the animals briefly before heading back through the door. One of his subordinated made a counter call and headed through the portal, the rest of the group followed until those guarding the perimeter retreated from whence they came.

The cats themselves, strong with purpose headed off on their gruesome missions. Around the planet at the same time, there were nine other groups off on similar missions. The hunt had begun.