Origin Story: Moonlight




Hey guys, I figured I'd repost a story from the Virtue boards here so that perhaps a slightly wider cross-section of people could see it. Be aware, of course, that it is probably legitimately a novella, having slightly surpassed the general word countage of a short story. Still, I like it, and hope that you might too. And, hey, it's free.

(I'll be posting it in several posts, because the chances of putting a 45-page story in one post messing something up somehow would seem to be gastronomically high. And yes, I am aware that that word does not mean what I seem to think it means. )

Chapter 1: Cold Moon Rising

I am glad, for the first time in months. The work has been long and hard these last weeks, but for once I am almost finished. The years have not been kind to me, and recently my knees and ankles have ached without ceasing- but now I am smiling, despite the pain. It should all be over soon, this damned project and all the secrecy and haste. The suit is nearly completed, the lab tests have been run; the only steps left in the process are to wait for my patents to clear and to make the delivery to my clients. If only Helene was around to… no, I will not cross that threshold again. She is in a better place; one where I will someday join her, and that is that.

Setting down his pen on top of his journal, Erik Tansell stood and stretched his arthritic joints; an enthusiastic symphony of creaks and pops was his reward. He glanced around his study, virtually the only room in his uselessly lavish house he ever used anymore. Dark, smoky wood paneling and shelves upon shelves of books met his eye; a dim fire was crackling in the fireplace behind him, giving the whole of the room a coal-red cast. The fire was burning cedar logs, difficult to light but fragrant and wonderfully long-lasting when ablaze- something he supposed was somehow similar to his own temperament. Sixty-eight years had been a very long time, and yet seemed like no time at all; still, he was the oldest person in his family for generations. Virtually all members of the Tansell line had drastically advanced their appointment with the reaper by pursuing any number of dangerous, self-righteous and near-obsessive crusades. Erik felt comforted that even though he had no children to carry on the line, he had at least done justice to his family name for continuing to bear it as long as he had.

But thoughts of this nature always brought Helene to his mind- Helene, the graceful, slender woman who had consented to share his mind and his bed for the vast majority of his life. She had been a movie star- back when that meant something, as he was fond of telling people. She’d given Katherine Hepburn a run for her money, back in the day, and still turned heads at sixty-five. Erik sighed and glanced behind him at the portrait of his wife sitting on the fireplace mantle, an ageless and compelling portrayal by an excellent artist. Her quirky smile and wavy locks called to him, bringing back memories of youth and vigor, days that seemed long gone. He wiped away the beginnings of a tear and sighed again. It was unlike him to be so melancholy, but he missed her so… and somehow felt that something of her death had been his fault. He had become so engrossed in his work in her last days that he barely had time to speak to the woman he loved, much less truly communicate. Erik doubted that it was possible to really die of a broken heart, but he still felt that his treatment had contributed to Helene’s gradual downfall. When she didn’t wake up that morning… and even worse, when he didn’t even realize what had happened until late that afternoon… everything he knew and loved felt dashed to pieces.

Erik felt the beginnings of a third sigh welling up in his chest and resolutely turned his mind to other things. The work had been important, really it had- Erik’s designs helped spur the early successes of Portal Corp. and made up a small but vital portion of the technology now used to transport wounded to hospitals. But somehow that felt almost worthless, deep inside, where he saw little but tragedy to come from dimensional exploration and the development of a medical technology that could do nothing for the one cause he cared about the most. It was a constant trial to abstain from the research of the Frankensteins and Vazhiloks of the world; Erik knew little to nothing of medicine, but he knew that wouldn’t stop him if he ever descended fully into that fell course. The desire to avoid that particularly dark obsession comprised most of the reason that he had decided to accept his most recent commission- he wanted to keep his mind on legitimate science, to give himself something to do instead of sitting around indulging in self-loathing and sorrow.

Not that this particular project had really needed any other attraction; its very nature was bait enough. His task was to translate recent findings in quantum gravity research into a device that could apply those results in the real world, a task of monumental importance and devious challenge- in essence, something he literally could not pass up. The only thing that gave him pause at all was the nature of the commissioner: a newly-formed German company, Jaeger Enterprises. He knew it was probably racist, or nationalist, or at least a little bit paranoid to suspect something unethical of a company merely because it was German… but his father had raised him on horror stories of World War II, when several families that had long been friends to the Tansells had simply disappeared. Still, the representatives that Jaeger sent to him were all bright, humorous and compelling, and his own meticulous research turned up very little evidence that painted the company in any way except a newly-founded company that intended to try and take a little bit of Rikti technology and make the world a better place for it. It mattered little, in any case; even though Erik was so in love with the concept, he had the presence of mind to adamantly demand that he keep the patent rights to the device. The Jaeger executives hadn’t been too pleased with that, but they signed his contract for exactly the sum and conditions he wanted in the end.

And now, that task was nearly complete. Erik was so proud of his discoveries that he had not only created the gravitic manipulator, as he referred to it, but also constructed a prototype armor suit that utilized the devices to perform many sorts of interesting tasks with nothing but gravity itself. The design was based in part on an interesting case from the paranormal files, back in the seventies: a young man claimed to be able to levitate objects, reverse gravity and the like, using only the power of his mind. His claims were never proven- despite some eyewitness approval- and in the end the scientific community dismissed him as a charlatan. But the memory sparked Tansell’s creativity, and soon the suit was created with many of the same effects of that young man’s strange powers. Still, it was just a prototype- the reverse-gravity effect was pretty much only good for throwing things into the air, and he hadn’t quite fine-tuned the gravity projectors enough to lift objects without somewhat crushing them either, but progress was still going strong.

He’d even found a beneficial side-effect of one of the more untested aspects of the manipulator: if the polarity was reversed, he could create a field of semi-mobile force around himself, effectively protecting the suit from environmental harm. Problems occurred in attempting to interact with the outside world while encased in the shield, but that was to be worked out in testing.

Erik walked to the window, staring up at the bright moon. It was full, hanging in the sky with majestic enormity, like a gentle, pregnant angel. As he watched it climb slowly into the sky, he noticed something odd: the moon shed enough light to clearly illuminate a strangely-dressed man, all in black armor and a bizarre helmet, walking up to the outer gate of his house. A flash of worry shot through Erik’s mind- Who in the world is…

His thoughts were interrupted by a soft knock from the front door, downstairs. He shrugged his coat back on and descended the gracefully curving flight of stairs, flipping on the soft track lighting in the entry hall as he did. He wasn’t entirely sure who would come calling at this time of night, much less be accompanied by such guards, but… With a rising premonition of dread, Erik Tansell swung open his mahogany front door.

Standing there, looking small, frightened and alone in the massive front porch, was a slight blonde woman in her middle years. Erik knew only her first name, Tanya; she had been one of his contacts at Jaeger, and perhaps the closest to a friend he had with the company. He cocked his head slightly to the side, trying to puzzle out what was going on.

“Tanya? What brings you here at this time of night?”

She shifted uncomfortably, rubbing her wrists and unconsciously refusing to make eye contact. “I am sorry to disturb you at this hour, Herr Tansell.” Her accent was obvious, but not unmanageable- Erik got a sense that she had nurtured it in a way that she could still seem mysterious and European while fitting in as well as possible with Rhode Islanders. “But there have been… changes… in our market strategy. Do… do you have any prototypes of any sort developed yet?”

Erik’s eyes narrowed. One of the very explicit stipulations of the contract was that he would be in sole control over release of the product. He hated leaving anything incomplete, and beyond that the thought of releasing his prototype without at the very least clearing the patents first just rubbed him the wrong way. “I might… but I do believe the delivery date was set for early next month?”

“I am sorry, Erik. We are receiving a good deal more pressure from above than we had anticipated, and they do not… approve of such delays, regardless of how justified they may be.”

“Tanya, I believe we’ve discussed this, and it is in my contract- I am not finished testing the device yet. I wouldn’t want to give you a faulty product.”

She looked even more uncomfortable, swallowing nervously. “I…”

A male voice broke in over her mumbled reply. “Ach, Tanya, I will handle this.” The speaker had a heavy German accent, plus a strange, growling tone, as if the words were foreign to the tongue pronouncing them. The man in black stepped into view from the shadows of the yard; Erik saw a strange insignia on his helmet that stirred his memory and chilled his mind. “Tansell. You will deliver the prototype tonight- we know that you have completed it.”

Erik flushed a little, prickling at the strange and rude treatment. “Who are you to make such demands of me? Have you not read my contract? It specifically states that…”

Tanya softly spoke up. “Erik, there has been… a change in management at Jaeger.” She was almost too contrite, as if the confident, personable woman he’d known was now… broken. Erik stiffened- this did not bode well.

The man in black shifted his posture, placing his hands on his hips in a semi-conscious expression of dominance. Erik took this in angrily, and resolved to make this man’s life as tough as possible for what he imagined the armored stranger had done to Tanya. “As I was saying, we need the prototype tonight. Our plans will not be delayed by your foolishness. We have seen you testing the device and it works- that is all we require of you. We,” he proclaimed, thumping his fist to his chest-plate, “will provide any perfection necessary.” The man finished with a strange, barking laugh- initially, Erik wasn’t sure if it had been him or some sort of dog off in the distance.

His mind flirting with various irritating rejoinders, Erik decided to play the age card. “Eh? What’s that you said, son? Your accent, I… well, the old ears aren’t quite what they used to be, and…”

The man in black stiffened and snarled, extremely convincingly; Erik would’ve sworn that a dog- or a wolf- had made the noise. He started thinking back to the paranormal files he’d accessed when researching Jaeger Enterprises. German investigators were very thorough when diagnosing and categorizing various types of lycanthropy; normally, Erik would’ve been highly skeptical of any such obviously mythological claims, but recent scientific studies had begun turning up some very disturbing proofs of this particular myth. Scientists were beginning to admit that perhaps wolf-men did stalk through the woods on moon-lit nights; Erik was suddenly possessed by the conclusion that he had one on his doorstep.

“I suppose I’ll just be taking you around to the lab, then?” He stepped onto the porch lightly, closing the door behind himself. “My lab is out back, in the old greenhouse complex. Shall we go?” The man in black grunted and made a sarcastic “after you” gesture. Erik shrugged nonchalantly, trying to contain the irrational fear that he was somehow certain the man in black could smell, and set off toward the greenhouse.

* * *

The night was crisp but not cold, soft breezes blowing the tufts of the over-long grasses as the motley group walked along an old cobblestone path. The moon hung overhead, somehow larger and more real now than ever, gazing down on the aching body of Erik Tansell like an ancient goddess: wise, rotund and arcane. It was a night that one could get lost in, and Erik allowed himself a quick lapse into that submerged state, grateful for any reprieve from the fear that crouched ferally over his mind.

A soft warmth touched his side, gently breaking his reverie like a soap bubble collapsing in slow motion. Tanya leaned in close beside him, looking at the marks Erik’s physical pain made on his face with a different sort of pain reflecting from her own eyes. “Thank you, Erik. For everything you’ve done. If I hadn’t told you that I am sorry eight or nine times already I would repeat myself, but… please, don’t upset him- it will not end well,” she whispered, her voice little but a breathy hush.

Erik stared back at her, wondering at what dire force had ravaged her features so. She had changed from a vibrant woman who could’ve easily passed for twenty-nine to a world-weary husk; Tanya looked more like someone of his own considerable age, though he was sure she couldn’t be more than forty. “Tanya, what happened to you? Just a few weeks ago you were so… different.”

“I…” She paused, glancing at the man in black, fear dancing in her eyes. “The company is very different now, Erik… I’m sure I’m not even supposed to be telling you this much.”

Erik glanced back at the man as well, sizing him up. There was definitely something feral about his form, a sort of savage grace in his motions. “Is he…”

“Human? No. No, he is something quite different. And he really is quite high up in the Fif… the company- he’s now in charge of our entire branch operation here. He answers to Metzger, if you would know his name.”

Erik scowled; his rudimentary knowledge of German told him that the name was common enough, but the literal translation- "Butcher" - did nothing to assuage his fears. “What happened to that young fellow I met… Deitrich, I think his name was? Your old CEO?”

She winced, breathing in softly through clenched teeth. “He’s… he’s dead, Erik.”

“Son of a…” Erik almost stopped completely. “I liked him, Tanya- a brilliant mind, if I ever saw one. And how old could he have been? Thirty, at worst?”

“He was. We celebrated his birthday not three weeks before... things changed. I…” Tanya paused, her voice shaking more than even before. “I’m scared, Erik. I’m not the person I was… not at all. But there’s a sort of power in what they do, how they say it- and that’s not even considering the more… physical aspects. Half of the employees are dead or fleeing for their lives, and the rest of us… I can’t even tell you. They’ll know we talked, even just this much… Metzger can probably hear us right now, and I know I’m going to be in trouble for this later, but I just thought you should know.”

Erik surreptitiously gave Tanya a squeeze with one arm, silently thanking her for at least having the courage to be this honest. The wind tumbled an old page of newspaper across his path, and he paused slightly, looking around and considering his next move. He did not know half of what Tanya was really talking about, but if things were anywhere near as serious as she made out, and if even half again of his speculations on the matter turned out true, there was little hope of his surviving the night. The only thing he could think of that might help him at all was his prototype armor, which he could only hope his “clients” had not discovered the existence of. If he could just reach the suit… he might have a chance. But he would need a distraction, and a big one- it wasn’t exactly easy to don the armor in a short time.

The greenhouse complex loomed large before them, a massive old two-story structure in good repair that nevertheless had a tangible sense of age. Erik had long ago stripped out the unnecessary gardening paraphernalia and built his own private research lab within; the decaying façade concealed brushed steel doors, extremely high-tech workstations and even a pair of shielded and insulated testing cells- the very model of a modern major general-studies facility.

As they neared the entrance, Erik slowed and pulled a plastic keycard out of his coat. With a resigned sigh, born more from real emotion than acting for the benefit of his coercive guests, he slid his card through a reader, placed a hand on a scanner and spoke a short string of nonsense syllables. He knew he was voluntarily stripping down every one of the defense mechanisms he'd spent so long devising, allowing people he now could not think of as anything but enemies into his own private lab, but... the alternative couldn’t be much worse. The man in black seemed guardedly pleased that Erik had actually taken them this far, muscling his way past Erik and Tanya and into the complex without so much as a grunt.

Erik sighed, hanging his head, when suddenly a bolt of inspiration struck him; there was yet one more defense, one that he had become so accustomed to as to cease thinking of in terms of defense at all. The final layer knew no password, key or image, and they would definitely not be pleased to see this black-clad intruder.

The inside of the lab was draped in soft darkness, only a diffuse bloom of moonlight from the open door providing illumination at all. Erik stepped inside, warily scanning the darkness for real or imagined threats, but the lab seemed empty save only Metzger’s dark silhouette. He heard a low growl, and the armored man turned back to him. “Why is the lab so dark, old man? You do have illumination, do you not?” Though his words were outwardly civil, there was a barely-restrained rage in the voice that spoke them.

Erik hurried to the panel of switches on the wall and flicked them all on. A curious whine filled the air, but nothing else happened. Erik jumped a little- this was not at all expected. “Oh, no… I must’ve blown a capacitor with the tests earlier…”

Metzger turned back to him; Erik could feel the heat of his glare through the strange grille on the front of his helmet. “Blown a… capacitor?” he growled, almost departing from speech altogether.

“Well, yes. I can’t exactly run this place on City power, but short of installing my own reactor I don’t have any other means of getting the energy I need. So, I’ve set up a Corolla matrix of high-ohm capacitors in sequence on the power line…” Erik got the feeling that his description was getting lost on his audience. “They’re like really big batteries that save up enough power from a regular power line to run my experiments. I was using so much equipment today that I must’ve drained them of all their charge… it might be as much as a few hours before the lights will come back on.”

Metzger let loose a roar of annoyed rage, shaking a rack of glassware on a nearby shelf. He ripped off his helmet, revealing a grizzled, scarred visage that Erik could only half-see in the veiling shadows. “You force my hand, old man. Tanya will speak for me when necessary. And I warn you, if this is some trick of yours… I will gut you like a pig.”

He stepped fully into the darkness, and Erik heard a curious sound, one he could only think of as… stretching. The silhouette bent and crackled, losing itself to a transformation that few had seen and even fewer had lived to talk about. It was as if two creatures were fighting for the same space, the same literal existence; the hulking figure pulsed and rippled as muscles wove themselves into thick cords, bones lengthened, and fur sprouted over the rippling mass of skin that enclosed the whole spectacle. Erik could not decide if he was disgusted or awed by the process, but by then it was over. The wolf-man roared again, raising the hairs on the back of Erik’s neck, a primal reaction to a primal, ferocious sound; a sound that whispered warnings straight into the animal parts of his brain and promised little but death. And it was here, in his lab, the closest thing to a sanctuary that he had in the world.

The wolf-creature that was Metzger loped off into the darkness, following a trail that only it could see. Tanya grabbed Erik’s arm and dragged him after the creature, helping him along bodily when his joints cried out in protest of the sudden change in velocity. “Tanya? Since when are you this… strong? And what did he mean, that you will speak for him?”

“I… that’s one of the things I cannot tell you, Erik.” She tried to force a smile, winding up with little but a sickly grin in the shadows. “A lady must have her secrets, right?”

Erik glanced back at her- her face was wearing a mask made of fear and regret, an unstable combination that he had experience with but no idea how to read. “Well, the device is still in the primary test chamber, I believe. Let’s just get this over with, please?”

Tanya sighed as they ran. “I am not sure that this will ever be over. I do not know what Metzger intends to do with you after he finds your prototype, but… I truly am sorry, Erik, for whatever that’s worth.”

“I don’t blame you, Tanya. Even if it is your fault, we’ve all made mistakes and bad choices. Sometimes, the line between what to save and what to sacrifice becomes entirely too blurred…”

But something else was stirring in the darkness, a faint glimmer of hope Erik could not help but cling to, a small foothold in the storm to come. He imagined he could see them from time to time, quick flashes of fur and sinew, borne along on velvet paws that made no sound unless their owners desired it. They were biding their time, if he knew them; waiting for the right moment to leap out from wherever and make their entrance. But this time, the stakes were much higher than just startling him or being dramatic- Erik only hoped that they would know enough to make the distinction.

(to be continued...)



Chapter Two: Presents of the Past

Being a member of a family that, by and large, was vastly wealthy but lacking any coherent direction in life was not without its advantages. Erik constantly received correspondence from strange relatives that he’d never met or heard of in his life, all of whom had great things to say about his work and his father, and also that they were sorry they hadn’t called or dropped by yet, but their favorite cause- cataloguing and researching the plants of the rain forests, curing cerebral palsy or marching for the cause of humanitarian aid in third world countries- just darn well took up all of their available time, didn’t you know. Possibly his favorite of these was his nephew Oscar, an eccentric man who had lived in England for the better part of his existence, but had recently moved to India to follow his own cause: preserving the habitat of the rare and endangered Bengal tiger. He always sent vastly interesting tales of exploration, jungle survival and even guerrilla warfare; in a sense, Erik found himself living out one of his family’s famous crusades vicariously through Oscar. But even this feeling of closeness did not prepare him for a blustery February morning, three and a half years ago…

It had been bitterly cold; a northeast wind angrily threw chill clouds across the sky like javelins, tracing their grey-black trails through a steel blue expanse of sky that throbbed with lightning. Erik was content to stay indoors, drinking a cup of tea and taking slight comfort in that, at his age, it was just about okay to not do anything but stay indoors and drink tea today. The thunderstorm was an eerie spectacle, almost alive as it writhed an eldritch electron dance. The cloud-play above birthed huge, cool droplets of rain that spun on the way down, exulting in the chaos and velocity of the fall, to land with a self-effacing, glorious impact in puddles of their brethren. Erik watched them fall from his study window ledge, savoring a golden memory of Helene, in a girlish mood, dragging him outside to dance in the rain. He let the pleasant reverie and the tea warm him from the inside out, taking a moment to relax and just listen to the…

“Wham! Wham! Wham!” An insistent and forceful knocking arose from the front door, shattering Erik’s mood with almost palpable irony. He sighed, set down his mug of tea, and walked downstairs to the door. The massive thing stuck in the rain, something he’d always hated about it, even as he admired the rich color of the wood; the door’s overall beauty was probably the only thing that’d kept him from just installing something more functional in its place. Well… that and the fact that Helene had picked it out herself and loved it, and even though she couldn’t exactly comment too much on his home-decorating decisions anymore, somehow he just felt comforted knowing that she’d still probably approve.

He wrenched open the door with a creaking pop, admitting a skirling gust of chilly, moist air and revealing a thoroughly drenched young man in a blue and grey uniform. Erik immediately recognized him as belonging to a courier service by the fact that he was clad in insanely short shorts, even in this weather; the patches on his jacket spelled it out in clearer letters, and also betrayed the fact that the poor man went by the name of Peter.

“Hello, Peter. Hell of a day, isn’t it?” Erik smiled, hoping to affect a look that was at least a little beatific, with perhaps a hint of long-suffering empathy.

The young courier jumped at Erik’s use of his name, remembered his nametag in mid-jump, and was left with nothing to say for a moment. Eventually, he spoke up. “Er. Are you Erik Tansell? Gotta big package for you, sir…”

Erik raised an eyebrow in surprise. “I don’t believe I’ve ordered anything lately… can you tell me who it’s from?”

Peter sighed, wiping his face with one hand and trying to wring water out of his shirttail with the other. “Can you just sign here, sir?” he pleaded, proffering a sodden notepad with vaguely important-looking numbers and figures on it, printed on what used to be a neatly lined grid and was now a blurry mess of former lines.

With a shrug, Erik signed his name with customary aplomb, hoping that his signature would survive any further soakings. “So,” he asked, curiously, “where is the beast, then?”

Peter grimaced. “Funny thing you should mention that, sir… but I’ll let you see for yourself. I’ll be right back.” He shuffled off the porch, back into the downpour and hustled back to his truck.

Erik leaned against his doorway, watching with mild amusement as Peter wrestled with a four-foot square crate of some sort, wrapped in brown waxed paper. After a moment, he finally got it loaded onto a hand-truck and began wheeling it up the walkway, rain droplets slamming into the waxy surface like tiny bombs. Erik noticed a series of holes across the upper edge of the crate; a stamped-on message that was rapidly losing the fight against water-solubility proclaimed that the crate contained “Live Cargo”. Peter grunted and strained as he lifted the heavy crate onto Erik’s high porch, panting and even wetter than he’d been before, if that was possible.

Stifling a laugh that wasn’t entirely too kind, Erik grinned at the young man. “Do I owe you anything for that, then? I’ve got some tea made, if you’d care to have any…”

Peter sighed, shaking his dripping hair into his face. “No, I’ve got deadlines to meet… thanks though. Good luck with… whatever it is in there, sir.” He jogged back to his truck and hopped in, cursing the weather all the way. Erik laughed and took a closer look at the crate for the first time.

There were marks from several ports-of-call on the package, several in languages Erik had no idea how to read or even identify, but the two most recent were from Britain and now Rhode Island. There seemed to be no return address or name specified on the outside of the package, at least; perhaps things inside would shed more light on the matter. Erik tipped the package up and into his entry hall- it was either lighter than it looked, or Peter just hadn't been very well cut out for his line of work. As he dragged the crate, though, a thump followed by a series of yowls emanated from within the paper-wrapped cube. Somewhat disconcerted, Erik ripped the paper off of the crate hastily, marveling at what he found inside…

Sitting in a steel cage were two white tiger cubs; their snow-white fur and pitch-black stripes contrasted brilliantly with bright, sparkling blue eyes and light pink noses and paws. When the cubs saw him they began jumping up and down, yowling in what Erik could only assume was a hungry fashion: they seemed pretty thin, though he honestly didn’t have any idea what size would be normal for tiger cubs at whatever age they were. They were incredibly cute, but Erik still felt a chill run down his spine when as he looked at them; these things could still be very, very dangerous.

A thick sheaf of laminated paper was attached to the cage with a steel ring-clip. Erik popped it open and took the pages; written in a hasty, shaky hand that he barely recognized as belonging to his nephew Oscar was a long letter, addressed to him.

“Dear Uncle Erik,

I am sorry for the urgency of this shipment- I’m sure it must come as quite a surprise to you. You may remember from my last email that I had joined up with a group of some like-minded friends to further promote our cause. We decided that we had enough active, intelligent and hardy folks in the group to take an expedition into the jungle to explore and perhaps document some tigers in the wild. But what we found there… was nothing short of horrifying.

All of the maps we had acquired from the historical societies were out of date, and the government maps were either classified or perhaps just not available to suspicious foreign types like Ariel- my fiancée, I’ve mentioned her before- and Thomas and I. We were going into this blind, and I think we paid the price for it.

Only the three of us wound up going at all; the rest of the corps decided to pursue other avenues of interest, as they put it, but we could not be dissuaded. We chartered a helicopter to take us to the habitat we’d chosen, an almost uninhabited area in mid-southern India that the locals had reported seeing many tigers in over the past year. The preparation and actual trip there went well; we didn’t have any reason to worry, not yet. But once we got into the wilds, we immediately knew that something had to be wrong- birds did not sing, the wind didn’t blow, and the very air itself seemed to be dismal and menacing.

Still, we pressed on. We'd faced worse, in the past, or so we told one another; I can’t think of anything now, of course, but that’s beside the point. We discovered a worn trail leading into the forest, rutted with ancient cart wheels and, more recently, thick, off-road tires. This was supposedly a tiger habitat? We struck out into the forest, following the strange path. Before long, we encountered the first of many unpleasant surprises on that journey: an encampment of poachers. Heavily-armed poachers, who obviously cared little whether or not they put a few bullet holes in our skins. It was then I discovered my friend Thomas’ talent for weaponry- with a single magnum pistol he managed to drop eight poachers, seemingly without even putting forth much effort. While he was reloading, though… in the chaos of the fight, we’d seen a strange man among the poachers, dressed in skins and native garments. As soon as Thomas dropped the clip out of the weapon, we heard the strange man start an eerie, droning chant; a second later, a bolt of lightning arced into the middle of our huddle, striking Thomas square in the chest. He didn’t get up after that- we panicked, frankly, firing our own weapons almost randomly out into the jungle. Before long we’d been caught, tied up like animals ourselves, and thrown into the back of a truck.

I tried to comfort Ariel as much as I could with my limbs tied together behind me and my mouth gagged, but in the end I found that I needed her support more than she needed mine. The poachers hadn’t seen fit to blindfold us; what we could see from over the clouds of dust the truck tossed up from the path horrified us. What had looked like a thriving forest from the outside was completely gutted on the inside: slash-and-burn clearing looks gentle compared to this, if that is even possible. It was almost as if the very life had been sucked out of the woods around us, leaving rotten husks where trees had once stood. The smell was horrible, a choking blend of dust and rot; in fact, the only indication we had that Thomas was still alive was the fact that he, too, was coughing at the scent. Soon, though, we had reached our destination: a mound of earth, surrounded by native huts and poacher’s tents.

There, our captors dumped unceremoniously at the foot of a large hut, hopped back in their truck and left, sparing us not so much as a word. After a second, we risked glancing around the camp. It was quite primitive, and yet somehow not so, as if every aspect of the camp was arranged just so for some unfathomable purpose. In addition to the grizzled, militant poachers, we saw several men- and some women- dressed like the wild man from the camp, with little but a short loincloth and a painting of scars and tattoos to cover their bony frames. The hut we were lying at seemed to be decorated in carved pictures and crude scrawls in some language that my mind refused to comprehend but made my skin crawl anyway. We did not have long to wait before the inhabitant of the hut came out to greet us: an ancient, wizened woman with midnight-black skin and yellow-white hair. She was dressed like the other natives- that is, naked save only a tiny loincloth and a skin of tattoos and scars. Given her aging body and apparent utter lack of hygiene, the effect was almost nauseating.

The crone bent over us, sniffing at our scents and roughly pawing our faces; it took a lot of effort to keep myself calm while being treated so. She straightened slowly, creaking like a door in the wind, and suddenly burst forth with a proclamation in halting Indian, a language I still do not fully comprehend. From what I gathered, though, she somehow recognized we were here for the tigers, and that the Ancient Ones- whomever they were- had decreed that we should join them. It was then that I noticed the necklace she wore, a crude hemp loop, strung with what appeared to be an entire set of tiger teeth. This could not end well, and it was about to get worse.”

Erik stopped reading for a moment and sighed. Though his relatives were extraordinarily interesting people, they certainly did not make things easy. He dropped his eyes back to the letter, but a strange rustle from the tiger’s cage caught him off guard. One of the cubs had hooked a claw into the thick padlock on the door of the cage, and with deft motions that Erik was shocked to see an animal make, the cub picked the lock of the door. The cage door dropped to the floor with a resounding crash, and the two tigers scampered out into Tansell’s foyer.

Erik stood up in shock- he didn’t even know how to react to this situation. He’d once had a cat, as a child, but these would no doubt be an entire order of magnitude different. They couldn’t be legal, either- no taking tigers on leashes down to Atlas Park, certainly. What did tigers eat, even? Meat, obviously, but how much, and what kind… and would they resist the temptation to take a nibble of him here and there when they got hungry?

Erik dashed into the foyer just in time to interrupt one of the cubs making a squatting gesture that was all too familiar from his cat-owning days. He bent down, snagged the creature- they were much heavier than they looked- and raced for the bathroom, the only solution he could think of. Heaving the door open, he plunked the tiger down on the toilet. Confusingly, it just sat there for a few seconds with an offended and embarrassed expression on its face. Erik suddenly noticed that the cub was a female, somehow got the picture and turned his back, then heaved a sigh of relief as the sounds that followed were at least taking place somewhere far away from the hardwood floors of the foyer. As he was waiting for his mind to catch up to everything that had just happened, he heard a flush- strangely enough- and the tiger cub trotted out past him, grumbling good-naturedly.

“Did you just…” He glanced over at the toilet, which had indeed been flushed, and turned back to catch the merest glimpse of a stripy tail vanishing around the corner. He hurried back, wondering what could possibly happen next.

Both Erik and the female cub made it back into the foyer just as the other cub- a male, Erik noticed- took a large, curious bite out of a decorative rubber tree. He chewed thoughtfully for a couple seconds, but eventually thought better of the entire exercise and spat the chewed, gooey mass of plant matter out onto the shiny wood floor. The cub Erik had just escorted to the restroom yowled, leapt over and batted him on the head reproachfully; he took this as some sort of a playful challenge, and soon Erik found himself scrambling to find a spot of floor that was not being simultaneously occupied by wrestling tigers. He stumbled over to a cabinet, slumped down against it’s comforting solidness and sat with his forehead resting on his fingertips- all he’d wanted to do today was drink tea and reminisce; he couldn’t think of something much farther removed from that than dealing with tiger cubs, even if they did seem to be uncannily intelligent.

The cubs ceased their wrestling and looked at him curiously. Then they wandered over his way, sitting down calmly on either side of him like statues flanking the entrance to a building. Erik absentmindedly laid a hand on each cub’s head, thinking only that Oscar was going to have a lot to answer for as soon as he got his hands on him.

* * *

“So,” said Erik, glancing at each of the cubs in turn, “what do you guys eat, anyway? Not milk, I take it. I mean, you’re looking pretty big already, if you ask me… and…”

Erik’s more or less rhetorical conversation spiked into a strained yelp as the male cub playfully latched onto his ankle with his teeth. “…and I see you have plenty of teeth, anyway.”

Watching the spectacle, the female cub sighed and lay down, affecting what Erik recognized from his own childhood as a big-sister attitude. Noting her disdain, Erik gently pried the other tiger off of his ankle, disentangled his sock from the very pointy objects in the creature’s mouth, and stood up arthritically. “Lets go to the kitchen. I suppose I’ve got something I can feed you…”

As they walked through Erik’s admittedly too-large house, the tigers took to racing one another, a curious proposition since they had no idea where they were going. Many side-rooms were blundered into, and Erik found himself stopping to right overturned furniture that he didn’t even know he had. Finally, though, they reached the kitchen, done in what Erik had always considered to be a tasteful but still somewhat ostentatious fashion: black marble countertops, dark red-stained woodwork and stainless steel appliances. It had been Helene’s favorite part of the house altogether, even though she was never much of a cook- Erik knew his way around the kitchen far better than she ever had. Still, Helene had never been one to let him be able to do something better than her, not without a fight at least. Erik had many fond memories of half-playful, half-deadly-competitive cooking contests that they had held with one another: winner take all, loser does the dishes. Erik sighed again, noting with some slight displeasure that sighing was becoming a habit, and shook off the misty curtains of reverie.

One of the tiger cubs had jumped up onto the kitchen island and was pawing curiously at the sink tap. Erik briefly panicked and scanned the room for the other one- thankfully, it was only attempting to make its way into the kitchen trashcan. He walked over to the refrigerator, a behemoth cube that reflected a slightly wavy rendition of his image in its mirrored steel depths, and yanked it open. “Well… let’s see… I think we can rule out tofu,” he said, tossing the offending brick of bean curd over his shoulder as he spoke.
He looked into a growing stack of take-out boxes, almost-identical white Styrofoam containers that held food that he always intended to eat but never did. One held a large steak, left over from an inordinately tasty but also incredibly large porterhouse that one of his clients had ordered for him at a dinner a week ago. Though the steak actually made his own mouth water, he grabbed the box and popped it open up on the island, reasoning that this would probably serve for tiger chow in the meantime.

The cub on the sink had actually managed to figure out the mechanism and was in the process of either getting a drink or giving herself a bath; Erik wasn’t entirely sure what her intent was, though the processes were fairly similar. The other cub had breached the defenses of the trashcan only to find it disappointingly empty, and was now shredding the plastic liner bag in sullen retribution. Erik whistled, but the cubs seemed absorbed in their own pursuits and paid him little notice. As he was wondering how best to attract their attention, it came to mind that perhaps it would be best if he sliced the steak up himself, rather than let them have their way with it. As soon as he turned his back, of course, he already knew what was happening- a pair of thumps as the tigers jumped up onto the counter and shortly thereafter the sounds of the cubs enthusiastically fighting over the meat. He sighed and grabbed a diet cola from the fridge, sitting down on one of the opposite counters to watch the tigers play with their food.

Within a few minutes, it was all over. The steak had been devoured to the last morsel, as well as the decorative sprig of broccoli that Erik had forgotten was also in the box, and one bite of the actual Styrofoam itself, though most of that had been spat back out. Erik figured the tigers were sated; they had ceased attempting to convey their immense hunger to him, at any rate. He sat back against a cabinet, swigging the last of the cola and musing. “Well, what now, guys? We’ve met, you’ve eaten, and… hmm…” The prospect of what he was actually going to do with two tiger cubs reasserted itself into his mind, worrying at worst and tiresome at best.

Sensing his slight consternation, one of the cubs leapt straight across from the island to Erik’s counter- not doing anything to ease Erik’s nerves in the process, mind you- and came over to where he was sitting. It sat in his lap, stared up at him with big, blue eyes and made a distinctly cat-like purring sound. Erik didn’t know if tigers normally purred or if this one was just being strangely intelligent again, but he scratched it behind the ears anyway.

Over the tiger’s grateful response to his attention, Erik noticed that the other cub was missing- the female, he gathered, since the one on his lap was perfectly dry. A moment later, she came trotting back into the kitchen with Oscar’s letter to Erik clenched lightly in her jaws. She gracefully leapt up onto the counter where Erik and the male cub sat and dropped the letter into Erik’s lap, gently displacing the other cub in the process.

Erik stared at the letter in his lap, then glanced back at the tiger. “You want me to… read this to you?” he asked, more than a little incredulous. The tiger nodded back, a gesture that he was certain she hadn’t learned out in a jungle somewhere. There was definitely something out of the ordinary afoot; even more out of the ordinary than having tigers randomly dropped off on your doorstep, if that was even possible.

“Suit yourself,” Erik replied, and began to read.

“Once the hag had made her pronouncement, she shuffled back into her moldy hut. We weren’t sure what to expect for a second- the camp seemed startled by the implications of what she had just said. A few seconds later, large natives lifted us up again by the ropes we were bound with, as if afraid to touch our actual bodies. We were dragged in the dirt toward a small clearing in the center of town, where the natives paused. Somewhere in the village, a small child cried out and was immediately shushed- an oddly human touch in these disturbing circumstances. One of our captors began intoning- almost singing- an incredibly deep, eerie chant, the meaning of which was lost on me. A second later, though, the ground began to shake, and with the scream of metal on metal the ground in front of us burst open, flinging sand and debris everywhere. When the dust cleared, I realized what it was- a large metal trapdoor, set imperceptibly into the ground near the village. It’s gaping mouth revealed a set of corrugated metal stairs leading down, into darkness, and that is where our captors took us.

The stairs revealed little about their destination, but I caught a whiff of sanitized air, motor grease and obscure chemical agents, the kind of smells you’d only expect to find in a top-flight laboratory. Eventually, we reached the bottom; a massive steel door painted with yellow caution markings. One of our captors mumbled something into a microphone on the wall, and they unceremoniously dropped us onto the steel floor. Without so much as a further glance at us, they fled back up the staircase, as if terrified to even know it existed. As soon as they were all out, the trap door slammed shut with the finality of a casket lid closing, and pitch darkness settled over the area. In the dark, I heard Ariel whimper; I moved over, as best I could, to be near her, and I felt a few tears plop onto my shoulder. I was close to tears myself, honestly- I don’t know that I’d ever felt so afraid before. Not necessarily even for my life, but just for what we might find out.

After a few agonizing minutes of darkness, a brilliant red light flashed on, spinning around to the strident tones of a far-off alarm. The door in front of us vented steam with a hiss and slowly rumbled open- this was a heavily secured facility, whatever it was. Light poured in from the crack in the door: white, fluorescent light that clashed like none other with the dusty floor upon which we lay. As my eyes grew accustomed to the light, I realized there was a presence on the other side of the door. It stepped forward, uncrossing arms and pulling a clipboard from its belt.

“I understand you are interested in tigers,” said a clearly female voice with a light British accent. “So interested, perhaps, that you have traveled all this way to our lovely jungle to see them. I believe I can grant your wish.” She finished with a dry chuckle, the auditory equivalent of a mocking smirk.

After a second of silence, I decided to speak up. “Are we to walk, then, or are you going to continue carrying us everywhere?”

The figure laughed again. “No, I believe your bonds have served their purpose, for the time being. Raj, come here and free them.” She then walked away purposefully, of the light.

Another figure that I could only assume was in fact this Raj stepped into the crack in the door. A blade of some sort sparkled in the light and for a moment I panicked, but it became apparent that he only intended to slice off the ropes that held us. We groggily got to our feet, even Thomas; apparently he’d been able to shrug off the effects of the lightning. We stepped inside, obvious questions painted all over our faces.

“This way,” ordered Raj, in clipped and heavily accented English. He had more of the look of a scientist or businessman about him than any sort of enforcer, but something about his bearing told me that it would be a far better idea to comply than resist. I fell into step with Thomas and Ariel, and we set off through the high-tech complex. Strange, tall machines lined the walls, interspersed with what looked like operating tables, tanks of mysterious fluids and a few massive computerized embankments of mysterious equipment. Soon, the woman who had first spoken to us rejoined the group, smiling viciously at our fear and confusion.

“I’m sure you’re just full of questions, but I don’t really have time to play tour guide, my lambs,” she said. “But, since it’s more fun to give you a little information than really leave you in the dark, my name is Amber Thorncross, head researcher here at the Genentech Basumban facility. We’ve a special interest in your beloved cats as well, which is why we’ve allowed you to make this visit, after all.”

Thomas spoke up for the first time since the lighting incident. “Genentech? The biological research corporation? Aren’t you based over in the States?”

“Indeed, but our business plan has plenty of room for profitable ventures such as this. Besides, outsourcing things to India is all the rage nowadays, isn’t it?” She laughed lightly at her own joke, and continued. “In all seriousness, we’ve come to the realization that perhaps cheaper intelligent labor isn’t everything they have over here. There’s a marvelous genetic wealth laden in some of the species here, and species from this area in particular… but that’s more than enough information for your ears, my lambs. Raj, I trust you can handle the rest?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Raj spoke with a heavy accent, but not all of it was Indian… It was as if something was somehow wrong with the shape of his mouth. He reminded me of a tiger himself, all coiled muscle underneath a camouflaging skin.

“Well, have a nice visit, my lambs. I don’t expect to be seeing you again soon.” Ms. Thorncross stalked away from us, her high-heeled shoes making sharp tapping sounds on the slick floor. Raj prodded us on, and we started off again through the maze of strange technology.

Ariel looked up at our guide with what I quickly recognized as anger on her face. “Sir, don’t you know that the tigers you’re so interested in are an endangered species? And that you’re breaking thousands of laws by capturing them?”

Raj ignored her pleas altogether. Little makes Ariel angrier than being ignored, and she has ways of getting attention at the worst of times, but try as she might Raj just prodded us on forward. Eventually she gave up and sulked; suddenly, the thought of my survival paled a little in comparison to dealing with a sulking Ariel for days on end… but love can do strange things to a mind, I’m told.

At any rate, it became obvious that we were finally reaching our destination. A very large glass wall sealed off what appeared to be a fully-featured reproduction of what we’d expected the jungle above to look like. Lush greenery filled the entire enclosure; there was even an artificial sky above that fairly accurately reflected what time of day it was. Raj punched a few buttons into a keypad by a door and it whisked open, emitting the scent of leaves and earth. He silently motioned us to go in, and with apprehensive glances at one another, we did so. The door whisked softly shut behind us, and Raj smiled, revealing teeth that were extraordinarily inhuman.

“Enjoy your stay,” he said with a saber-toothed smile. “The tigers are hungry.”

As Raj’s final words echoed in our minds, a strange shimmer enveloped the glass wall we were staring out of. Suddenly, it was as if we were staring straight out into a limitless jungle; the illusion was so perfect I unconsciously reached out a hand to the wall just to verify that it was still there. A shiver ran through me as I wondered what, if any, course of action could help us here…

Thomas pounded on the wall in rage, shouting something my ears didn’t want to comprehend at that moment. I know I sound terribly weak, Uncle, but I think I just about lost it right there. Ariel came and wrapped her arm around my shoulder- without her, I’m not sure I could’ve stood at all. There didn’t seem much we could do but wait, wait and see how the cats regarded our invasion into what they likely considered their territory.

A silent, tense minute crawled by without incident; as time passed, it seemed I could only grow more afraid, though I wasn’t sure it was possible. These creatures that I had so loved as a boy and had thrown myself into researching for the majority of my adult life would very soon be the end of me. I felt strangely empty, as if all the years I’d spent, all the things I’d sacrificed had just been for… nothing.

In a way, I was gratified when a bush began rustling a moment later. The undergrowth parted, and out came an enormous snow-white tiger, clutching a pair of equally white cubs in (what we assumed were) her jaws, since male tigers rarely have anything to do with parenting cubs. She saw us and started, then dropped the cubs on the ground and began growling low and menacing.

I immediately tried every means I knew of to make myself look non-threatening; mother tigers with their cubs are among the most dangerous creatures in the world, and finding one moving her young is one of the worst times to encounter a tiger in the wilds. My efforts seemed to be of no use; the tigress continued advancing on us, her growl sending primal tremors of fear up my spine. But then… I heard a voice.

“What are you doing here?” came a question in a voice like thunder. I knew that the speaker was somehow female, though there was certainly no indication from the sound of the speech. I’m not sure if the voice was speaking directly into my mind, or if the tigress’ growls had somehow changed into understandable English, but the effect was much the same.

“I… we came here to research,” I stammered, thinking that a when dealing with a voice that can project itself into your mind, honesty is probably the best policy. “We came here to find tigers, and try to help the humans in the area deal with them without having to kill them.”

The tigress stopped, and her growl changed intensity. It was less threatening, but somehow more menacing, as if she was really angry now. “You humans are all the same! You come here, to our forest, and take all of our food! Then, if we’re forced to take some of yours, we are hunted with nets and blades and flames! We do nothing to you and still you kill us!”

“No! We’re not like that! We’re here to help you, if we can!” Ariel protested. I felt a moment’s gratification that I wasn’t the only one hearing the voice, but it subsided depressingly quickly.

“So, what do you think you can do, then? Come and take us to this strange… forest that ends?” The last phrase wasn’t communicated in words, but rather as a mental picture of the strange glass walls with their illusory growth. “Hah. You’re too late- we’re already here.”

“We’re not with them, either. We are as much prisoners as you are,” I said, noting that the tigress was calming down- her growls were much less ferocious and more… conversational, though to think of them as such was a bit of a stretch.

She sighed wearily, and glanced back to where her cubs were now busily wrestling with one another in the underbrush. “I… I hate to ask you this, to beg from the same that imprisoned me, but… do you have any food? There is little hunting in this “forest”, and I… have to feed the cubs… The runt has already… already died, and another was taken from me, and if I can’t find food for these two…”

I glanced at Ariel, who shook her head, and at then at Thomas. He dug in his pocket and withdrew a battered packet of beef jerky. “This is all I have left,” he said. “The rest was taken when they took my pack earlier. It’s not much, especially not by your standards… but if you’d like it, it’s yours.”

The tigress ambled over to him and sniffed at the jerky. Her nose crinkled- I doubt tigers normally have access to spicy foods like that- but she cocked her head a little at him and nodded her assent. Thomas grabbed the meat out of the plastic bag and offered it to her cautiously; the huge animal gently grabbed the dried meat out of his hand and took it back to her cubs. She laid down and let them have the first pick of the meat, which they took to with gusto after a moment’s contemplation. Eventually, the tigress got a large piece for herself, but allowed the cubs to devour most of the jerky. When the meat was gone, she stood back up and glanced back at us.

“Thank you,” she said with a pleased not-quite-growl. “I did not expect any kindness from your kind, small though it may be.”

“I’m sorry for coming out and asking this, but how is it that we can understand you?” I asked, finally voicing the unspoken question.

“You mean that you normally don’t understand us?” The tigress seemed puzzled. “That does explain some things, though it is certainly no excuse. I do not know, in that case. I speak as I always have. Perhaps it’s something about this place?”

“Maybe so…” I remembered back to the strange director’s speech about how there was something special about the tigers in this area- perhaps this was what she meant? That didn’t seem to make that much of a difference, though, so I tried a different tack. “Are there any other tigers in here with you?”

She laid down again and crossed her paws, then grumbled crossly, “Yes… another female, though I know little about her, and a lout of a male that I regret to have once called mate.”

Ariel suppressed a laugh into a small chuckle. “I know exactly how you feel,” she said. Though I really didn’t know what she was talking about, I found myself blushing: I hope she wasn’t referring to me, at least.

A heartbeat later, a booming explosion and the jarring report of gunfire echoed throughout the complex without warning. The tigress leapt to her feet. “What was that?” she roared.

“I… I have no idea,” I lied- it didn’t seem wise to try and explain what was happening to the poor animal. She dashed back to her cubs and picked them up protectively in her mouth, then turned to face the false jungle wall with fury in her eyes. Another explosion roared out and the glass wall that had penned us in buckled and shattered, raining down dull shards. When the dust settled, what looked like a scene from a movie was playing out before us: an army of high-tech guards with Genentech logos on their armor battled a force of what I could only assume to be paranormal humans. They were all wildly different: one figure was cloaked entirely in a white robe, sending gouts of fire and lighting out at the soldiers from inside its mysterious depths. Another was outfitted with a strange set of power armor, the kind I’d only read about in comics and strange alternative science publications, and the last- strangest of all- was an eight-foot-tall, blue-skinned woman with six arms. She clutched a different weapon in each fist, all of which proving more than adequate against the guards.

A shouted order in a heavily accented voice that was all too familiar rang out, and Raj ran into view, naked save only a few charred remnants of his clothing. His body was definitely inhuman- thick brownish fur sprouted all over his uncommonly muscular torso and limbs, and his hands and feet sprouted thick claws in place of nails. When the tigress saw him, she dropped her cubs on the ground and roared in fury. “That’s the one that took the other cub from me!” With a single bound, she leapt across the pile of thick safety glass shards and charged at Raj.

“Wait!” I cried, but my shout fell on deaf ears. Tiger and strange tiger-man were soon locked in combat: Raj fought back valiantly, but the tigress was just too powerful for him. Soon, she’d gotten him pinned to the floor, and with one powerful, final swipe of her paw, neatly ripped his throat out. He tried to scream, but all that came out was blood; a second later, his head dropped to the floor and the light left his eyes. I felt horrible for witnessing it, but the sense of revenge was so palpable and so… right, somehow, that I couldn’t help but celebrate a little inside. The tigress stood and turned back to us, blood all over her fur and a victorious expression on her features. She started towards the jungle enclosure, but before she could take a single step an ear-shattering shot rang out and she staggered. The tigress slumped to the ground, bleeding heavily from a wound on her side.

I screamed, something primal bursting out of me. Ariel and Thomas shared my sentiment, and as one we began scrambling over the piles of glass. As we ran out into the complex, we caught a glimpse of Ms. Thorncross running towards us with a scoped hunting rifle in her hands. She snarled and leveled the rifle at me, of all people; luckily, I dropped to the ground before she got the shot off. The bullet sailed over me, slamming into a distant tree in the artificial jungle. I rolled to my feet- one of the few times in my life I think I’ve ever actually managed to be that agile- and continued running, though the fact that I was unarmed was becoming painfully obvious.

I kept running at her, not knowing what else to do. She remained focused on me, quickly loading another round into the chamber and aiming the rifle. I prepared to drop to the ground again, but before she could fire, another shot rang out. Thorncross dropped her rifle with a clatter, staring dumbly at the blooming spot of red on her breast, then slumped to the ground. I glanced behind me and saw Thomas holding a smoking pistol with a vicious smile on his face. We stopped and regrouped, sharing an unspoken conversation, and ran back to the tigress.

She was still alive, but her breathing was extremely labored and she’d obviously lost a lot of blood. The tigress looked up at us as we approached, her eyes clouded with pain. “I’m… sorry,” she gasped, and tried to get up again.

“No! Don’t move!” Ariel told her. She ripped a length of cloth from the hem of her shirt and pressed it to the tigress’ wound, trying to staunch the bleeding.

“Please… I’m not… going to make it,” the tigress panted. “Take… take my cubs. You can… probably raise them better… than I could, anyway…”

“No!” cried Ariel. “You’ve got to be strong! Please!”

“I… I’m sorry,” whispered the tigress, and slumped down to the ground. Her last breath escaped raggedly, and the tigress closed her eyes. Ariel grabbed fistfuls of fur and buried her face in the creature’s flank, choking out sobs.

I lifted Ariel up and she wrapped her arms around me instead, crying bitterly into my shoulder. Thomas had disappeared, but a moment later I heard him clambering over the pile of glass shards. He returned shortly, one cub in each of his hands. They looked small and scared, despite realistically being too large for Thomas to carry one-handed. Ariel soon ran out of sobs, and stared up at me and at the cubs in turn- I felt like something needed to be said, but the words just wouldn’t come.

I chanced a look around: it appeared that the fighting had all but stopped. The armored suit and the multi-armed woman were tying up survivors, though on occasion they both glanced over in our direction.

“I am sorry for your loss,” said an ethereal voice from behind us. I turned and beheld the white-cloaked figure from the battle. He- or perhaps she- bowed and murmured a few words in a language I don’t think anyone on this planet has ever spoken before. The hood rose again a second later, a strangely calming feeling coming from the depths within. “The authorities will be coming soon, and I do not believe you will have an easy time explaining your case and presence to them. However, I can transport you from this place, if you desire. But only you three- my powers are nearly exhausted from battle.”

I glanced at Ariel and Thomas, but only one thought went through my head. “No. Take them,” I said, indicating the cubs. “We probably deserve whatever we get, but they are truly innocent in all of this.” Though surprise was painted over their faces, both of my friends quickly agreed.

The white-clad figure bowed slightly again. “Very well then… and where shall I send them? Do you have friends elsewhere?”

Suddenly, I realized my plan had a hole in it. If the authorities were going to be interested in the case, I did not want to endanger the rest of the organization; besides, they hadn’t even gone with us on the trip- a selfish part of me demanded that they receive no benefit from our misfortunes. Then, dear Uncle, you occurred to me, and the first thing out of my mouth was, “I’ve got an uncle in America. He’s a scientist- I’m sure he’ll know what to do.”

The figure seemed amused. “America? This will take some doing, then.” The hood dipped again, and with a flash of strange light a cage appeared in front of us. “Please place them in here. I cannot send them all the way across the world, but I can see to it that they arrive there quickly and safely.”

Thomas put the cubs inside the steel cage, which swung shut of its own accord a second later. Brown paper sprouted from nowhere and quickly wrapped the cage, looking for all the world like an everyday package. The figure cocked its head introspectively and a row of air holes appeared around the top of the package. “Do they have names, then?” Our lack of response seemed to convince him otherwise. A moment later, the figure added, “One is male and the other is female, if that helps.”

Ariel thought for a moment. “The female’s name is Shyrr- it means ‘song’ in Hebrew, and ever since I met them I’ve felt a song in heart.” (For the record, Uncle, I really don’t quite know how to spell that name in English, though since Hebrew uses a different alphabet altogether it may well be academic.)

Thomas looked at me and shrugged. “If it were me, I’d name the male… Kajar. That was the name of the very first tiger I ever saw, in a circus way back when. Don’t think it means anything nice, but… it sounds like a tiger name should, I think.”

“Excellent,” said the figure. Writing appeared on the outside of the package, including your name and address, Uncle, though I hadn’t actually told the robed creature anything of the sort yet. “Will your kin know why you have sent these?” he asked, as if he already knew the answer.

“I… er, no… I guess not,” I replied.

The figure reached within its robe and produced some glossy paper and a strange quill pen. “Then write,” he said smugly.

As I took the items from him, the pen leapt to the paper of it’s own accord. With speed I could never even dream of, it scribbled down virtually every thought that came to my mind- which is the reason that this letter is not only so long, but so… personal, I guess.

And this, I suppose, concludes my letter, since I doubt that even whatever magic is in this pen will allow me to write what is going to happen to me… to us. Please, take care of the cubs. If I can, I’ll visit you soon, and maybe take them off your hands if they’re too much of a burden, but for now there’s no one else I can turn to. Thank you, Uncle Erik, and God bless.

--Oscar Tansell”

Erik put down the papers and shifted his glasses back up his nose. “That,” he said with a sigh, “was one hell of a story.”

Glancing down, he noticed that the male cub- Kajar, he supposed- had gone to sleep, but the female was still gazing curiously up at him. “So, the offspring of a tiger that could talk- or at least that my crazy nephew could understand… It explains a few things about you, I suppose. I’m still not sure about this whole… thing, but given the circumstances I don’t see how I could possibly turn you away.”

Shyrr- the female- placed a paw on one of Erik’s knees and murmured gratefully. Erik hopped down from the counter and turned to face the cubs, both of which were now looking back at him curiously. “It’s going to be tough… and kind of strange, all things considered, but I think this is going to be the beginning of a very interesting relationship.”

(to be continued...)



Chapter Three: Heart of the Night

A small breeze worked its way through the twisty corridors of Tansell Laboratory, ruffling Erik’s hair as he and Tanya walked down the darkened corridor. Erik turned his head this way and that, trying to think up a diversion to get away and searching for any sign of his last line of defense. Tanya was soldiering her way on through the darkness, lending Erik her shoulder when his knees gave him trouble. Erik found himself pitying the woman, though he knew she wouldn’t want him to… he thought in silence for a moment, then spoke up.

“Tanya, I feel as if I should warn you about something. Maybe just because you’ve risked so much to be honest with me already tonight, or in the spirit of our friendship… but that really doesn’t matter.” Erik paused, thinking about how best to convey the information. “We’re not alone in the lab, Tanya.”

A momentary flicker of fear opened Tanya’s eyes wide. “What do you mean, Erik?”

“Three years ago, I received a delivery that… well, it changed my life. Two white Bengal tiger cubs, sent to me by my nephew in India.”

“Erik, you’re kidding? You sound like those [censored] magicians from Las Vegas.” Tanya smiled, but it didn’t touch her eyes- Erik got the feeling she was just trying to break the tension, lest something snap inside.

“I don’t really think I’m capable of kidding at this point in time.” Erik sighed, realizing how strange his story must sound. “They’re extraordinarily intelligent, Tanya. Even from the very first moment I had them I realized they could understand my speech. And, in the time that passed, I taught them to read as well. Perhaps it’s a bit telling of me- absent-minded scientist and all that- but the only things I had around to teach them with were lab manuals and science journals. Still, they picked up on things within weeks, much less the years some humans take to learn simple materials. Shyrr, especially- er, she’s one of the tigers, Kajar is the other… Well, anyway, Shyrr was especially keen on reading and the like. She managed to learn to type by herself one day when I was out on business, just by discovering my computer and reading the letters she put onto the screen. I came home to discover a three-page paper on kinetic redirection that I knew I hadn’t written.”

Tanya frowned, not quite understanding what Erik was going on about. “I… I don’t know what to say. I believe you, Erik, but it’s just so… strange.”

“I know… trust me, I know. Eventually, when the cubs were big enough that they really couldn’t be considered cubs anymore, I had to move them out to the lab. You think human teenagers are bad; let me tell you, they’re nothing compared to an adolescent tiger… and I have two. Still, they seem to like it out here, and I’ve actually converted one of the testing chambers into a sort of tiger habitat, if you will, though they apparently prefer to sneak back into the house and sleep there instead. I think of them as assistants, but really they’re as much researchers on their own right as I am… even some of the work on the prototype we’re here to collect is theirs. So, yes, they are my assistants- hell, I think of them as my kids more often than not- but they’re also nearly full-grown Bengal tigers.”

“And they’re in here somewhere, watching us?”

“In a nutshell, yes. Well, realistically speaking, Kajar is probably asleep… but he gets very cranky when his naps are interrupted, and that’s just about the same thing, I think.”

“I… see. Thanks for telling me, Erik. What should I do if…?”

Tanya’s question was cut off by a snarling roar from ahead in the semidarkness. There was something unnatural about the cry- Erik was certain he’d have recognized it if one of his assistants had spoken, and this did not sound like them.

Tanya grimaced and glanced back at Erik. “Ah, that’s Metzger calling me… can you make it on your own, Erik?”

“I’m fine, Tanya. Do what you have to.” He squeezed the shoulder he’d been leaning on gently and let her go off into the dimness beyond. As she disappeared into the gloomy lab, Erik found himself in a quandary: on the one hand, if he snuck off now, he might be able to get to his manipulator suit before his “guests” realized he was gone. On the other, he might be surprised in the dark by a vengeful werewolf or frightened and misguided tiger and neatly disemboweled. Still, he didn’t fancy his chances when they reached the prototype lab anyway; something told him that Metzger would then consider him rather useless, and Erik couldn’t think of any outcome to that situation that didn’t involve him getting maimed or killed. Well, it was settled then- Erik stealthily crept over to the opposite wall, moving forward carefully and quietly. Soon, he had reached the double security doors to the lab hallway, foot-thick plateglass shields that were designed to stop any unpleasant energies, contaminants and/or creatures that came their way. He reached over to the access keypad and surreptitiously punched in the passcode, hoping for the best… unfortunately, it was not to be.

With an electrical hum and a slight hissing sound, the lights suddenly turned on, revealing Tanya and a very irritated werewolf about ten feet in front of Erik… and two enraged tigers charging down the hallway behind them at top speed.

As soon as Metzger saw Erik, his yellow eyes narrowed viciously and a snarl escaped his lupine muzzle. The words, if indeed there were any, were totally lost to the alien shape of his tongue, but Erik read very clearly the tones of rage and implied betrayal. Erik froze, a bad reaction in the best of times, but his body simply wouldn’t obey his commands. Metzger’s snarl broke into something that was half a mocking grin and half a simple baring of teeth- I’m going to enjoy this, said the smile, no words necessary. He crouched to leap, corded muscles shifting and piling like a spring about to snap- and two tigers simultaneously slammed into his back, smashing him to the floor with a doglike yelp.

Erik had to suppress a shout of fearful exhilaration- what he had been hoping for the duration of this entire terrifying journey was finally coming to pass. Metzger growled, pinned beneath the two tigers, and Erik turned back to the doors. His heart dropped when from behind came the sound of Metzger surging up from the floor, bowling over what had to be at least six hundred pounds of tiger. Erik dashed inside the lab chamber, slamming the emergency close button on the opposite wall. As the glass pressure doors swished shut, he turned to watch the ongoing carnage.

Both tigers circled Metzger menacingly, with silent growls on their faces and more malice than Erik ever remembered seeing in their gait. Metzger smiled his feral grin again, and leapt at the closest tiger- Kajar, Erik realized. Kajar leapt aside with grace that belied his normal lazy demeanor, leaving Metzger clawing at open air. Seizing the opportunity, Shyrr leapt toward Metzger’s back, raking him with her claws and scoring deep gashes in the wolf-beast’s hide. Metzger roared and swept an arm back, knocking Shyrr into the air and further into a wall. She hit with a grunt and tumbled to the floor.

Roaring in anger, Kajar charged at Metzger, seemingly abandoning any sort of tactics for pure rage. Metzger tensed, awaiting the strike- at the last second, Kajar ducked off to the side and snapped at the werewolf’s Achilles tendon, opening a large gash and unbalancing the wolfman. He was still able to whip around on his good leg, though, and pitched forward at the passing tiger, viciously tearing a hole in Kajar’s flank with his teeth. Kajar exclaimed in pain and nearly fell, but he pulled out and bounded over to the opposite wall, where Shyrr was just now regaining her feet. Both tigers turned to stare down the hulking werewolf yet again, the air crackling with tension and the floor slicked with blood.

Animal roars echoed in the lab, and both combatants leapt at one another once again. Metzger swooped low and aimed a double-pawed swipe of his claws at Kajar, but Shyrr leapt over her brother and slammed the werewolf full in the face. They tumbled backwards, snarling and biting at one another. Somewhat wising to the wolfman’s tricks, Shyrr pinned Metzger stiffly enough that he couldn’t bring as much of his prodigious strength to bear, leaving him spread-eagled on the floor. Never one to pass up a dirty trick, Kajar leapt forward and seized the werewolf’s groin in his jaws. Metzger let out a canine shriek of pain; the disturbing cocktail of the earsplitting cry and a sort of shared masculine empathy set Erik’s teeth on edge. Shyrr reared up and prepared to deliver a powerful swipe at the werewolf’s now unprotected throat- it looked like it was all over.

A howl broke into the cacophony of growls and another werewolf leapt into the melee, seemingly from nowhere. Shyrr was caught off guard and off balance, and was knocked sprawling yet again by the creature’s powerful slam. Kajar released Metzger with a final sideways tear with his teeth and ducked under the other werewolf as it brought a two-fisted hammer blow down on where his head would have been. Metzger was quick enough to avoid the strike himself, and soon both werewolves were on their feet and angry.

As the melee raged, Erik boggled. Where the hell had the other beast come from? Unless Metzger had brought extra help that was shadowing them the entire time- Erik wouldn’t really put it past the *******- then someone… he knew… Realization blooming, Erik scanned the room for Tanya and couldn’t find her anywhere. Truth be told, it was easy to lose sight of a pretty but unassuming woman when tigers and werewolves were brawling right in front of you, but he still felt somewhat foolish. Sure enough, in the back corner of the room was a ripped pile of clothing that resembled what Tanya had worn that night, and a further glance at the general physique- and especially the chest region- of the newcomer betrayed her identity. Erik couldn’t believe it at first, but snatches of the furtive conversation he and Tanya had shared that evening quickly started coming back to him in a disturbing new light. His mouth worked, trying to say something but failing; only false starts and unbelieving sighs escaped his throat. He pressed himself up against the glass door, inexplicably moved beyond anything he’d expected, and softly managed to speak her name: “Tanya…”

Though the thick glass doors should’ve kept the noise out, she whipped her lupine head in his direction and stared at him through the glass. For a second, something broke in her golden eyes and they filled with tears of pain, her irises a window to the woman inside. But then she shook her head violently, clearing it of such thoughts, and the wolf took control again. She spun back towards the tigers, letting loose a roar of anger at them, at Metzger, at herself and her own weaknesses, and the fight continued.

Shyrr was the first on her feet, flipping over acrobatically. She motioned Kajar toward Metzger with her head; he snarled a quick assent- they both had their own scores to settle, now. She paced off around the female werewolf, sizing her up callously. Tanya returned the gesture, a uniquely female streak of dismissive scorn. When it became apparent that neither was going to surrender or show any visible weakness, they dispensed with the pretense and simultaneously went for the kill. Tanya and Shyrr clashed again and again, trading slashes, bites and blows. It came down to another pin a second later, Tanya on top, raking at Shyrr’s underbelly with her hindclaws. Shyrr retaliated with two vicious swipes at the tender parts of Tanya’s chest, scoring thick scratches through the fur. Tanya shrieked viciously and snapped her jaws down over Shyrr’s collarbone, ripping a patch of striped fur completely off. Shyrr screamed and thrust Tanya off of her with all of her might, then scrambled to her feet dizzily and leapt off into the distance, leaving a trail of glistening red blood behind her.

The fight between Kajar and Metzger was less personal, but far more brutal. The feigned rage of before had become reality for both fighters, pure anger and blood fueling more and more powerful strikes. Metzger seemed obsessed with visiting the same injury on Kajar that he had inflicted, but the tiger was able to use that fixation to his advantage. Taunts and calculated strikes soon devolved fully into a rolling brawl on the floor, neither creature holding the upper hand for long. But Kajar found himself tiring, his own finite strength flagging in the face of the inhuman creature’s might. All it took was one slip- a miscalculated claw slash at the werewolf’s eyes- and Kajar felt the advantage fleeing him as surely as Metzger’s jaws fastened themselves around the back of his neck. Metzger lifted him bodily with nothing but his jaws, and Kajar felt helpless. The werewolf threw him across the room into the wall, and he hit hard, feeling the air creak from his ribs within him as he landed. Kajar woozily staggered to his feet, fighting the waves of blackness that threatened to overwhelm his vision. He made it halfway down the hall before collapsing in a disjointed heap.

Safely behind his glass protection, Erik felt his heart break: for his assistants- his children, as he thought of them; For Tanya, a friend that he just now realized had started to mean something more to him, and more importantly now for the loss of that chance; And for himself, for the betrayal he’d suffered tonight and the cruelty of the world in general. He stared through tear-stinging eyes at the werewolves as they pulled themselves up off the floor, deep wounds and cuts already beginning to close. Why had he allowed poor Shyrr and Kajar to fight such beasts as these? If only-

Erik’s self-pitying thoughts were derailed by a massive thump as Metzger flung his battered body against the thick glass. The werewolf left smears of blood behind; but also, more importantly, a hairline fissure in the plateglass. Erik flinched- that glass was designed to withstand an explosion of epic proportions… but, after all, perhaps it had been many years since it was installed, and not everything was as durable as could be hoped... Sympathizing grimly with the fate of old equipment, he set off down the hallway, hobbling occasionally when his ankle failed to support him adequately. As he found his testing chamber, a roaring shatter filled the hallway behind him. Erik leapt inside the large, rounded-off room and spun to face his adversaries.

Shockingly, what followed him into the room wasn’t a wolf at all, but a very naked Metzger, covered in a coat of wounds and thick, though fully human, body hair. “That was an entertaining diversion, old man,” he leered, in his thick accent. “But I trust you have no more tricks up your sleeves, ja? Hand over the prototype, Tansell.”

As he spoke, a gash on his forehead that had been slowly trickling blood closed up on its own, healing almost as if it had never been. Erik shook off feelings of fear and disgust and gestured toward the lab’s equipment stand, where a prototype manipulator he’d installed into a wand of sorts lay. Metzger’s eyes lit up when he saw his prize, and he stalked over to claim it. Erik was more focused on the doorway, though, as an equally naked Tanya demurely walked into the room without apparent shame. Her wounds were less severe than Metzger’s were, but seemed to be healing a little slower; the analytical parts of Erik’s brain started compounding various werewolf ability levels and how that related to their healing powers, but the rest of him studiously ignored it. Erik found his gaze drawn to her breasts, not because of the measure of youthful beauty they yet held, but rather the score of inch-deep, lightly bleeding gashes along their soft curves. He winced and shook his head slightly, and returned his gaze to her face. “Tanya, I…” Erik broke off, unsure of what to say. “I understand,” he finished softly, unsure of how he should be feeling.

She glanced up at him and her golden wolf’s eyes flashed. Erik suddenly realized that he had always been interested in her eyes and their unusual hue without ever truly knowing why; now, when he saw them for their full value, he understood. Perhaps there had been more to Tanya than he’d known, even before Metzger and his kind had taken over, but the time for such musings did not seem to be now. He stared at Tanya, wondering if he could ever possibly understand the creature that lived beyond those eyes.

She softened momentarily, echoing her brokenness from their meeting that night and the tear-filled transformation from a moment ago. “Erik, I…”

“Be quiet, Tanya!” Metzger broke in before the words had even left her mouth. “You have already told him enough! Far too much! You know you’ve already earned some of my… discipline,” he sneered, his mouth twisting repulsively as he spoke the word, “and yet you would add more to it?”

“I… no, Metzger, I am sorry, it’s just that…”

“Just nothing! When we came here I was prepared to take the prototype and leave Tansell alive, for it is not wise to strip yourself of resources that you may yet exploit again. But now! Now he knows too much, and he must die!”

“What!? Metzger, you’ve got to…” Tanya broke off, frustration filling her features as she realized that track would have no effect. “This is nothing at all like what we agreed on before!”

“Ahh,” he growled, his voice taking on a calculating tone. “But doesn’t that presuppose that you are not my beast, my plaything, that I command to my will and that obeys my command loyally?” His eyes narrowed dangerously. “I always knew you were a wild one, Tanya, but I felt you- of all the jägers- would understand. Now I am not so sure.”

Tanya dropped her gaze, fearfully. “Yes, Metzger. I am loyal to you, you know that.”

“No,” he replied coldly, “I do not know, Tanya. If you wish to prove your loyalty to me, you yourself will slaughter this pitiful old man you so willingly… consort with.”

“What!” Tanya started, and turned to face Metzger fully. “This man is my friend! I only agreed to this because you claimed he would not be harmed, and now look at you!”

“So sad, it is, that you would side with him over me, wouldn’t you? I knew it, Tanya.”

Erik could feel the heat of Tanya’s gaze from across the room as she glared at Metzger. “You… you pig! Stop playing me like that! I am loyal to you, but there are some things that I will not do, even for… for someone like you! Much less for someone like you!”

Though nothing overtly changed, Erik suddenly realized that something very dramatic had just happened to Tanya. A new power lurked in her countenance, perhaps a hint that the old pride was returning to its former resting place. “You! You who came into our home with your promises and your treasures! Now look at us! A pack of scurrying dogs, broken to your pathetic will! I will not have it any longer!”

Beads of sweat appeared on Metzger’s forehead, though he did his utmost to look concerned. “Have you forgotten the time we spent together, then? I own you, Tanya, by all the rights of…”

“You and your [censored] rights can go to hell! You ***** me, and you call that your right! You…!” Tanya’s sentence burst into an incoherent scream when she couldn’t find an appropriately insulting word to finish it off.

“Tanya! Be silent! I will not hear you placing such human words on our ancient…”

“No! No more talking! I am through with you and your [censored] ways, Metzger! This ends now!” Tanya clenched her fists and slammed her eyes shut, and Erik found himself staring at yet another bizarre metamorphosis. Though it was far less grotesque than the twisting Metzger had undergone, the sight of her human features melting into those of a wolf and then settling somewhere in between unsettled him. Now that he could see it close up, it became obvious that her were-form was much better balanced than Metzger’s, a lithe and powerful creature that, though still something he’d fear in a nightmare, somehow seemed much more natural than the hulking demon that was Metzger. Her fur also had a golden sheen to it; it would have been beautiful in the moonlight, were it not cramped under the intermittently flickering fluorescence of the laboratory.

Metzger callously dropped the fragile manipulator wand and swung his fists up beneath his chin. “Fine, [censored]. If it is a fight you want, I will be happy to show you who is in charge here!” Metzger initiated his own transformation, but Erik looked away this time. Within seconds the two werewolves were at each other’s throats, snarling and ripping at one another on the floor.

Erik seized his opportunity and sprinted out of the lab chamber into the supply closet across the hall. He fumbled in the darkness against the back wall, searching for the hidden keypad he knew was here somewhere… There! He quickly punched in the complicated passcode and a segment of the wall slid out of the way with a hiss and a crash. Sitting in a secret recharging booth was the suit of powered armor he’d been designing for the past two months, a sleek takeoff on one of the powerful designs by James Maxwell, an inventor colleague. He’d painted it purple and red, at the whim of his assistants, who had done their best to assure him that it was indeed very stylish… but in any case, this wasn’t the time for remembrances. He stepped into the boots and greaves as best he could, linking the hydraulic joints as he went. Next came the chest-plate, and though he struggled to lift the ironically heavy armor over his frame, it went on smoothly in the end. The arms were the last piece, and the most complicated- therein lied thousands of his newly designed manipulators, intricately linked in serial patterns Erik had found described in an obscure, very nearly arcane article on Artificial Intelligence; it had really been a whim, but at this point he was beginning to suspect the pattern array was providing an inexplicable boost to the power of the devices. As Erik took his first powered step, he felt a clunk down in one of his boots. He cursed his curiousity, knowing that every second he delayed could be hurting Tanya, but was nevertheless compelled to pull the boot off and check what was inside it. What he shook out into his gloved hand caused what a lesser man might’ve called an extremely evil smile to spread over his face- it was his father’s old silver pocketwatch, assumed lost these last few months. Still grinning, Erik formulated a plan, a dark fantasy that filled him with mad glee. He slammed his helmet and boot back on and surged out of the closet, the powerful hydraulic rams in the armor giving him a spring in his step that he thought he’d lost forever.

The gap between labs was cleared in seconds, and though the automatic door to the testing chamber had closed itself in his absence, he knew time was of the essence- clicking an actuator, Erik lowered his shoulder and rammed straight through the steel barrier. When he saw what was going on in the room, though, his heart fluttered and a scream involuntarily escaped his mouth. The two werewolves were locked in what might have otherwise been a lovers’ embrace, though ordinarily they wouldn’t be soaked with blood and the male wouldn’t have just finished ripping out the female’s throat. Erik noted with a slight surge of pride that though it was somewhat apparent that the contest itself and the degree of contact had tried to arouse Metzger, his mangled equipment was completely non-functional; in a deep down, barbaric way, Erik now had proof that for the sheer sake of capacity he was a better man, even in his old age. The werewolf moved to get up, and Erik knew it was time.

“Metzger!” screamed Erik, his armor channeling the curse into the bellow of an angry god.

The werewolf spun around, obviously shocked at what he saw before him. “Wha… old man! You are too late, whether or not you gird yourself in metal britches! I have killed many of you hero-types, and I will no-”

Metzger’s snarled imperatives cut off with a strangled grunt as Erik shoved full power through the manipulators around the werewolf’s larynx. He flexed his arms above him, breaking the powerful hold the earth’s gravity had over the werewolf and sending him rocketing upwards into the ceiling where he impacted with a bloody crunch. Erik then dropped him back to the lab floor, compounding the injuries. He reached out with his hands and made a grasping gesture, then yanked it back toward himself, cuing the manipulators to pull the werewolf toward him- but nothing happened. For a moment he panicked, cursing some oversight, but then caught a glimpse of the manipulator indicator in his helmet’s HUD- RECHARGING, proclaimed a small white box.

Metzger did not waste Erik’s momentary incapacitation. He pulled his broken body together and sprang towards Tansell, claws at the ready. Erik quickly thrust his arms out and threw the manipulators into full reverse, and a flickering bubble of near-solid energy flared into being around him. The werewolf slammed into the shield at full velocity, smearing his blood on the surface as finely as glass. Erik whipped his arms downward toward the werewolf and the shield erupted into a bolt of pure force that blasted the creature all the way across the room to the opposite wall. Noting that his main manipulators had finally recharged, Erik engaged them to fully hold Metzger there, splayed out on the wall like a bug on a windshield.

Erik walked up to the werewolf, regarding him coolly. Metzger snarled defiance at him, spitting bloody saliva onto the front of Erik’s helmet. Though the visual sensors weren’t even in the front of the helmet and were thus unimpaired, Erik took off the helmet and stared at Metzger face to face. The werewolf laughed at him, though he coughed as he did. “So… the old man is some kind of mage… it seems. Well, mage, I have beaten many of… your kind as well, and…”

“Stop bragging for one second, Metzger. I want to take a moment to correct a couple of things you’ve incorrectly assumed. First, I am not a mage- this is pure science,” he said, with an admittedly geeky surge of pride, “and secondly, you assumed I am some sort of hero.” He raised his armored fist that gripped the chain of the silver pocketwatch so that it dangled not even an inch from Metzger’s immobile nose. The werewolf shrank back reflexively, as best he could. “Oh yes, you recognize this, don’t you- it belonged to my father. Inherited silver, right, werewolf? See, what a hero would do right now is arrest you, take you down to Bricks where they’d throw you in a high-security pen for monsters such as yourself, and you might face lawful execution for your crimes in months or years. No, I am not a hero. I’m just going to kill you.”

Fear wavered in Metzger’s eyes, but still he spat back, “With that puny watch? I killed your woman, and I will do the same for…”

“Oh, for the love of god, man! Shut up!” Erik slapped the werewolf backhandedly with a power-armored glove. “Perhaps this is a feeble old man’s gruesome revenge fantasy, but that isn't going to stop me now. You killed Tanya, you killed or wounded my tigers- my children!” He paused, regaining his composure. “This is from me, Butcher, and I pray that it burns, to the very last,” he said softly, gripping the watch tighter.

Erik rerouted power to a separate section the manipulators, one of the last systems he’d installed and one that he still wasn’t entirely certain was reliable. At first the manipulators didn’t seen to be working, but a minor dampening effect, somehow derived from his intelligent matrix, stabilized the power flows and his entire arm shifted out of phase with the rest of the universe. Tansell thrust his arm into the werewolf’s chest, passing through the very atoms of his body, and deposited the pocketwatch in the depths of the creature’s beating heart.

For a second, nothing seemed to have happened, and Metzger summoned up an ounce more courage. “Hah! Your attempt has-! Herchk!” The watch then regained full solidity, and silver was pumping through the werewolf’s veins as fast as his rapidly deteriorating heart could carry it. Black corruption, like burning rot, spread like wildfire through the monster’s body as he spasmed and flailed against the hold of the gravity manipulators. The creature’s eyes flared red with an unearthly glow and it screamed a final spine-tingling howl as desiccating blackness surged over its face. Erik released the gravity hold on the creature, and Metzger gathered his burning frame together for one last leap. Erik merely stood his ground, facing the charge impassively. The wolf-creature sailed through the air, his body literally disintegrating as he went. Then his form failed completely, collapsing entirely to black ash as the lights from his eyes flared and burned out like twin stars. As the heavy ash rained to the lab floor, Erik's father's pocketwatch bounced to the groundand slid to a halt at his feet, glimmering innocently.

Erik sighed, noting with some displeasure and a slight sense of déjà vu that sighing was becoming a habit. Wearily, he put his helmet back on and stalked out of the laboratory into the dark city beyond. He needed something to do, now, especially since two people had probably been seen walking into his estate and now they would never walk out again. The police would probably be understanding- insofar as they even did much policing at all, anymore- but he still didn’t want to risk it. It had been a crime, after all; at the very least, the dark joy that crouched in the bottom of his heart told him that it had felt like one. Besides, the gadgets he had in his house alone broke so many ordinances he might get jail time, to say nothing of the equipment of his lab. No, this was better; a new start, a new identity, perhaps: another nameless hero, working the streets of Paragon, making the world a better place, one foiled mugging at a time. It seemed appropriate, and was certainly in line with the Tansell way of going out… Perhaps it had taken him a lifetime and the infliction of scars he knew would never heal in whatever time he had left on Earth, but as Erik Tansell strode out into the city that night he had a vision. As he walked, Erik swore an oath, on whatever value his life had left, that his vision would be as he had seen it in the depths of Helene and Tanya’s eyes, in the love he’d found for the strange tigers: a better place for every creature, man, beast, or otherwise; a world that people could be proud to say they lived in.

* * * * *

A few hours later, a small spark willed itself into existence on the deserted floor of Tansell Laboratory. A tiny spark that willed a heart to beating, a heart that brought life to a body, and a body that contained a life most extraordinary. A tiny flicker, at best- everything was weak, everything hurt- but it was a start. The scent of ash filled the stuffy air, and a biting metallic twinge betrayed the presence of toxic silver somewhere nearby, but it was of little concern. A few long moments later, once the body had finally reaffirmed it’s duty and healed its wounds, Tanya sat up, rubbing her neck where it had once been torn out. She pieced together roughly what had happened from the contents of the room and could barely contain a dark joy at her final emancipation. What she had long been unable to win for herself, Erik had successfully procured without even knowing that he had done so. She scrambled to her feet on the sticky floor, purposefully ignoring the fact that she was getting up out of a pool of her own blood. Glancing once more at the pile of lightly drifting ash in the corner, Tanya felt a smile come over her face. She bent down and retrieved the prototype manipulator- it had been what she’d came for, after all- and set out of the laboratory, determined that there would soon be further changes still of the management of Jaeger Enterprises.



Shyrr’s Epilogue

Shyrr found herself in a very, very tight place. It didn’t follow from what she remembered last, lurching down the lab hallway with a strange coolness and a burning fever spreading throughout her body from the hole in her neck. “By rights,” she thought, “I should be dead right now…” But that was obviously not the case, or else the afterlife was extraordinarily cramped. She forced open her eyes; the sight that met her view was not at all the one she was used to. Her eyes were… better, somehow- though the place was mostly dark, the colors she could see were vibrant, and details were far keener than she had ever been accustomed to. At the same time, the bouquet of smells she was used to perceiving was somehow dulled; all of the scents were still there, but it was as if her brain just wasn’t as used to smelling them as it normally was. “Is… is this some side effect of that bite? Maybe… they gave me some medication…”

She dropped her paw to the floor of wherever she was and discovered something else that was strange; it wasn’t her paw, not anymore. Where she’d once had thick furry pads, she now had long, dexterous fingers, and where her claws had been were now flat nails of iffy strength at best. In fact, her entire body was different than what she was used to, though it still felt the same, inside. The shock suddenly got to her, and she panicked, snarling- even that came out differently- and thrusting outward with all four of her limbs, as best she could. There was a juddering creak and one whole side of the cage- of course that’s what it was, a cage- fell off with a clatter in the darkness. She swung her new legs over toward the hole unsteadily, for although her body seemed to know it’s dimensions expertly, she had no idea what was going on. Evidently, the cage was some distance above the floor; she fell for a second of shock, but landed, perfectly balanced, on only her rear paws. Shyrr panicked for a second and immediately put her other paws on the ground. Strangely, this didn’t help at all and she actually fell over in a heap.

“Okay, Shyrr,” she mumbled to herself, “get a grip. So something weird has happened. You’ll be fine. Just take it slow.” Cautiously, she started to stand again, allowing her body to balance itself and ignoring as best she could how weird it felt. Finally she was up, and stable, looking around the room from a much taller perspective than she was accustomed to. The cage she had been in didn’t seem so high after all, just a bit off the floor, really… though as she glanced down at the cage, she made another shocking discovery: two large, relatively mobile, fleshy… things sat squarely on her chest. They were fairly sensitive, all things considered, but somehow they’d escaped her notice thus far. A quick tactile inventory assured her that her… “other” body parts were still more or less the same, though she was a trifle embarrassed by their slightly exposed location in this form. At least she still had her fur to cover things up a bit- indeed, about the only things she could tell on her body that were the same were her ears, tail and fur. Everything else was just like a human girl’s would be. This struck her as odd, because somehow she’d known that all along, and it was only the sheer obviousness of the fact that had kept her from realizing it thus far.

As the obvious realization cemented itself in her mind, a door suddenly clicked open, flooding the room in brilliant light. Shyrr found herself noticing yet again how colors leapt out at her, like the forest green of the clothes the Animal Control agent wore, and the details of his name badge that read “Earl” and… wait. The agent that had just shoved open the door merely now stood there, staring at her in shock. Shyrr hadn’t had a whole lot of experience with humans, other than Uncle Erik at least… and she tended to think of him more as a very tall, shaven tiger anyway. She didn’t exactly expect instant identification or anything, but shouldn’t he at least have the courtesy to not stare at her like that?

As she stood there trying to think of a way to convey her meaning to the strange human, he stuttered something in a hefty New York accent, which Shyrr recognized from TV and movies. “H-hey! Who’re you, lady?” His eyes flicked off her briefly- Shyrr still didn’t quite get why he was staring at her so intently- and took in the broken, empty cage that had once been quite full of tiger.

Shyrr decided to try to be nice. She wasn’t entirely sure of what humans considered nice, but Uncle Erik had appreciated it when she’d put a paw on his knee or shoulder and made a purring sound. The purring might be a bit harder to accomplish as a human, but she could certainly put a friendly paw on him, couldn’t she? That seemed reasonably universal.

The guard managed to put two and two together- the empty cage, Shyrr’s miraculous appearance, her furry, stripy self- and panicked a little. The fact that she chose that exact moment to step forward and hold out her hand like she was reaching for him did nothing to assuage his fears, and he reached behind him and drew his pistol.

Now that was something Shyrr recognized. She didn’t have a hell of a lot of real-world experience, but she’d seen a lot of TV, watched a good many movies and even recognized the make and model of the gun from a number of Uncle Erik’s random magazine subscriptions- looked like some kind of cheap Glock. Shyrr wasn’t impressed. At this point, the only major thought going through her mind was that she had had more than her fill of getting hurt lately. So, in the end, it might be decided that she overreacted.

The Animal Control agent didn’t really know what hit him. One moment, he was pointing his weapon at a bizarre tiger-woman in the animal cages, and the next his arm was being pulled behind his back painfully, his gun was stolen, and then after a short, sharp pain on the back of his skull, everything went black for awhile.

Shyrr wasn’t quite certain how she managed all that- most of it had come out of a fancy martial arts movie she’d seen once. Moving around as a human wasn’t that much harder than as a tiger, but the tiny details- like what you did to someone who was trying to hurt you- were very different. Still, the guard was unconscious, she hadn’t been hurt, and, on some level, it’d even been fun. That was another key difference she noted- humans seemed to be much more attuned to having fun. While chasing her brother around and sleeping in the sun certainly felt like nice activities, they no longer held the attraction they once had. It was a little depressing, honestly.

Shyrr decided that there wasn’t much to be gained in this mostly-empty prison room. There seemed to be another door in the tiny office beyond the door the guard had opened, so she swung it open and escaped out into the world at large.

The street was a little confusing. Streets in movies tended to be crowded with both cars and people; only when something was dangerous or eerie were they this empty. The only car on this street was an old, crusty police cruiser with the words Animal Control painted on it’s flank parked by the curb, and the only person she saw was a rather smelly old lady wrapped in a blanket above a sewer grate. Still, the woman seemed to be holding an animated conversation with… someone. Shyrr didn’t see anyone else around, but decided to investigate.

“…and then, d’ya know what he sez to me? He sez…”

“Hmm… no, you didn’t mention that yet.” Shyrr found herself thinking aloud, a habit of hers that seemed to convince Uncle Erik that she was, in fact, listening to him, even though he never seemed to be able to understand her. Surprisingly, the old woman jumped and turned to her- Shyrr wasn’t used to being understood by people she talked to.

“Ay!” crowed the homeless lady. A little disturbed that Shyrr wasn’t startled by her outburst, she changed tack. “Ahh, aye gets it, aye do. Yer one o’ them sup’r-heeyo floozies, all up runnin’ about without yer drawers on. Aye tell yah, izzat Em-Tee-Veeh alla yah kids watch now, aye tell yah. S’the damn Em-Tee-Veeh.”

Shyrr wasn’t quite sure what the woman was talking about, but she found her face getting hot under her fur- blushing, she supposed. Still, it was a little, er, breezy out here, despite her fur, and most people did wear clothes anyway… Since what she had previously considered thinking aloud was pretty obviously audible, she ventured a question. “Do you think I should get some clothes, then?”

“Do aye? O’course yah should, yah damn floozy! Why, in mah day, all we hadn to wear w’r gunny-sacks, an’ we w’r em anyway!” The homeless woman paused and peered a little closer at Shyrr. “Tho… wit’ a body like yahs, aye can’t say I blame yah fer showin’ it off a bit...”

Shyrr found her face getting hot again and embarrassedly said goodbye to the old lady, walking quickly back across the street to the Animal Control center. Maybe the guard had some clothes she could have? They seemed pretty common, clothes… didn’t seem like something people would obsess about.

Despite her best efforts, though, the only clothes she could find in the Animal Control place were the ones the guard was wearing. Still, she felt the need to check and see if he’d part with them, so she gave them an experimental tug. The pants popped off, exposing the fact that he was wearing another pair underneath them! “Great,” thought Shyrr. “If he’s got two pairs on… even if those other ones are kinda short… he shouldn’t mind if I borrow these, right?” She hopped into the pants, which were well outfitted with pockets on the sides. Interestingly enough, they fit her almost perfectly if she wore them low on her hips. “Probably to be expected,” she surmised, purposefully ignoring the fact that the guard had to have a fairly prodigious waistband to fit around her new body’s rather large hips in the first place.

She tried to temporarily borrow his shirt, but… well, buttons weren’t a skill she was really up to date on yet, and plus he didn’t have two shirts on like his pants. Beyond even that, the shirt kinda… smelled funny, and it said Earl on it anyway. So, she left it on him, though she didn’t expect he’d find the fact the buttons had been accidentally broken off amusing. She left them in a neat little pile near his nose so he’d see them when he woke up, though.

Shyrr decided that she'd had enough of this cramped little place and left for the street again. The homeless woman had departed, perhaps thanks to the unusual feeling of not being the strangest person in the vicinity for once. Shyrr laughed a little to herself about that, though she figured that if she was going to get used to this human thing it might be wise to figure some things out soon. Like where you went to get food around here.

A glimmer of movement in a nearby planter caught her eye, and before she realized it she'd instinctively leapt toward the sight. When she landed, though, her new chest didn’t quite know to stop yet, resulting in a fair deal of wrenching pain. She hissed a little to herself- tigers didn’t have to deal with this kind of thing unless they had cubs at the moment, an activity she’d never exactly had the opportunity to do since the only other tiger she knew was her brother. But, stuck as she was in this human’s body, something would have to be done. Taking stock of everything she had, which at this point was solely a pair of pants, she realized that there was a belt through the waistband. It wasn’t even done up enough to make the pants any tighter- the guard must’ve just been wearing it for looks. She yanked it out of her belt loops and, after a moment’s examination, wrapped it up and around her chest, buckling the belt in the middle. It wasn’t quite perfect as a harness, but she doubted anything would be, as large as her new breasts were. Though it still hurt a bit when she jumped or sprinted, it was vastly better than nothing. Despite the apparent value that humans put in having a large chest, Shyrr couldn’t figure out any benefit they provided- they were kind of nice and soft, sure, but they just got in the way, and there was the bouncing issue to deal with, and they stuck out like a sore thumb if she was trying to be inconspicuous…

There was another flicker of movement in an alley across the way, and Shyrr figured it was high time she stopped poking around at her new anatomy and figure out what was going on. She stepped down from the planter and walked toward the alley, where she overheard a curious conversation.

“So, the boss says you’re the one to talk to about… you know… power.” The first speaker was a young guy, not much out of his teens, if at all.

“Yeah? And what if I am?” The other speaker, on the other hand, didn’t even sound human at all to Shyrr. She smelled something strange, as well: the acrid, sulfurous smell of brimstone.

“Then, well… I got this little box here, see. Snagged it offa some MAGI bureaucrat who was stupid enough to walk past my alley. I sense something dark in there, you know.”

The second speaker laughed. “That’s an imp, fool. Really, really small nether spirit. Won’t get you a lick of power unless you already know a spell or two to bind it… or you know its name. Now, that I might be interested in. Names are always good business.”

Shyrr felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up as the speaker finished his statement. Something was very wrong about him, and though she couldn’t see him, visions of monsters started dancing in her imagination. She decided to stealthily sneak a look around the corner as the two continued speaking.

“I don’t know what its frickin’ name is, Pyre! You just said yerself that it’s pretty useless, right?”

The first speaker had his back to Shyrr, but from the bandanna wrapped around his face and the demonic sigil embroidered on the back of his coat, she took him for a member of the Hellions, a strange gang that used dark magic that had featured prominently in some high-profile crimes in the Atlas Park region. Shyrr supposed that gave her a pretty good idea of where in the city she was, at least, gang territories being what they were. She leaned her head fully into the alley, trying to catch a glimpse of the second speaker.

A growling sigh escaped the shadowy figure’s lips. “Look, Bobby- you’re useless to me without some kind of resource in trade. Don’t you know anything about the Netherworld at all? Names are power, and if you know something’s true name, you can control it. That’s the only way you’d get any use out of your little imp.” He paused, swiveling his head in Shyrr’s direction. She caught a glimpse of massive horns, protruding from his temples, and the pale flesh of his face looked like it had been burned away, revealing a snarling demon’s visage. As he swiveled his head, however, Shyrr caught a glimpse of two thin black lines going back towards the speaker's ear- “Aha… a mask,” she realized. The speaker glared in her direction, though it was obvious he didn’t actually see her. He turned back to the kid, shaking his head grimly. “And, for Baal’s sake, Bobby, you’re not five years old anymore. Make yourself a name that doesn’t belong on the playground, and then we’ll see if you deserve any power. Now get out of here.” A little disconcertingly, the mouth on the mask moved in perfect synchrony with the Hellion’s speech- Shyrr found herself unable to come to a conclusion as to whether or not it was even a mask at all and not just the man’s face.

Shyrr watched Bobby’s demeanor fall, but he brought his head back up at Pyre angrily. “You’d better be able to back that up, Pyre. I might be young, but I’m as tough as any of you and I can beat a man twice my size in a fight.”

The fanged mouth on Pyre’s masked creased into a grimace. “I’m not warning you again, Bobby. I’m not staking this spot out just so I can be bothered by halfwit punks like yourself.”

Bobby took the initiative. “Let me help you, then, Pyre- prove that I’m worth some o’ yer secrets.”

“That’s great, kid, but we’re Hellions, not boy scouts. You want power, you gotta take it. You think you’re capable of winning anything from me?”

“I… no, Pyre, I don’t have any intentions of challenging you. But when ya make a deal with a Power, the Power doesn’t lose anything in the process. Hell, I’ll even rebind myself to you, if that’s what it takes.”

Pyre’s demon mask quirked into a menacing grin. “Battalion won’t be happy to hear that, Bobby. I could reject your offer and just go tell him what you just said.”

Fear settled on the youth’s shoulders, but he continued on. “I know that. But I meant it, an’ I won’t go back on what I said… not without good reason at least.”

“Hmmph. Fine. Battalion is probably so focused on his war with the Skulls that he won’t even notice you’re gone. What I am here for is a rare white tiger. You familiar at all with what they’re used for, or do you even know how to read?”

“I can read fine. Tigers are used for some divinations- the guts and so on. They’re also used in aphrodisiacs and strength elixirs, and some Middle Eastern demons like havin’ ‘em as sacrifices.”

Shyrr’s breath caught in her throat as she realized they were talking about her. She tried to sneak back out of the alley entrance, but a pigeon picked just that moment to flutter away from her incautious feet. Bobby spun around at the noise, grabbing a pistol out of his waistband. “Pyre! Look! The tiger!”

Pyre was a little more experienced in the ways of Paragon City, and knew well enough that Shyrr’s appearance would have spoiled his planned heist anyway. “Aw, hell no. It’s a [censored] mask, Bobby! Get her!”

Shyrr’s heart leapt into her throat and she fled, running blindly through the darkened city streets. Shots from Bobby’s pistol and roaring gouts of flame she had to assume Pyre had created intermittently soared past her, ricocheting off of and charring the crusty alley walls.

She needed somewhere to run to, somewhere to hide- anywhere. As she sprinted, a strange sign caught her eye. She was running too fast to read it, even with her enhanced eyes, but a large picture of a tiger crouched in the center of the logo. She slammed an elbow through the window and pitched herself inside, barely avoiding the heap of sharp glass shards she’d just created.

A moment later, the two Hellions ran by, oblivious to the broken window and the disappearance of their quarry. Shyrr breathed a sigh of relief, sitting down on what turned out to be a large, rolled-up workout mat. She was just about to stand up and make her exit when she became aware of another presence in the room with her, only a few feet behind her.

“Tell me, creature,” intoned a calm, Asian-accented voice, “what brings you to the Tiger School of Martial Arts in such a commotion?”

Shyrr jumped and a small “eep” escaped her lips, though the calm words held no overt malice. She spun around to discover a slight, long-haired Asian gentleman sitting on a reed mat, in what she vaguely recognized as a lotus position. He looked ancient, though still at least passably spry- it was as if all the old, wise masters of every cheesy martial arts movie she'd ever seen had been rolled into the person that now sat before her.

The man seemed to sense her consternation, and opened his eyes slowly. “I am sorry. You are obviously frightened. You may call me Master Thanh; this is my school of the art of fighting.”

Having recovered enough presence of mind to respond coherently, Shyrr bowed respectfully to the old man, figuring that since everything that had happened to her in the past hour had been so much like something out of a movie or comic book, she might as well play the part. “My apologies, Master… Evil ones pursued me, and I needed somewhere to go.” She thought for a moment, and then embarrassedly added, “Er… and, um, I’m sorry about your window.”

The old man smiled softly. “It is of no consequence, child. You are something of an enigma to me, as perhaps Fate has decreed- are you a spirit, pray tell? Or a traveler from another land?”

“I… I’m Shyrr. Up to a couple hours ago, I was a tiger. Then, well, I got in a fight with a werewolf, and I woke up in a cage in an Animal Control office, I guess. Now I’m not quite sure what I am, anymore… I guess I’m pretty human looking, but I still… feel like a tiger, at any rate.”

The master chuckled once, lightly. “Then perhaps Fate has seen fit to send my school a boon. You are aware that such a coincidence as that a tiger creature would come into my school is not exactly ordinary? These are the hands of Fate at work, child. Fate has sent you here for a reason.”

Shyrr didn’t have the heart to tell the old man that the only real reason that she was here is that she’d seen the tiger painted on the sign and acted almost wholly without thinking. Then again… perhaps that was the sort of action that Fate favored most? There were many questions she wanted to ask the old man, but she went with the one that popped into her head first: “Er, well, Master, what sort of martial arts do you teach here?”

The old man laughed softly, and spread his hands, palms up. “I teach all types, and none; I teach discipline, self-control and the awareness of one’s place in the universe, but I also teach offense, attack strategies and the ability to unbalance one’s opponent in the universe. My style has no true name, instead bearing many different monikers from each of my students, but many of those now rightly considered heroes found their start in my care.”

Though Shyrr hadn’t realized it up until now, the thought of being a hero really called to her; it was something that she’d always somehow wanted. She had justifiably felt held back by her animal nature and the fact that she could neither speak nor easily interact with humans as a tiger, but now that she was stuck in this human shape… well… things might go a bit differently. “Oh! That sounds interesting.”

“Interesting?” asked the old man, smiling a little.

“Er… I mean, I’d like to learn what you can teach me, Master.” Shyrr bowed again, hoping that she wasn’t overacting too much.

“I see that you are willing, but I also sense a bit of pretense in your manner. You think that this is an act, or that perhaps I am testing you?”

Shyrr winced guiltily. “I… well, yes, sir. It all sounds like something from a movie, like this couldn’t possibly be real.” She paused, glancing down at her bizarre new self. “Though… after today, I guess I shouldn’t doubt that anything is possible, after all.”

“You show some wisdom. This is good,” remarked the old man. He shook his head, and stood up. “Come. Show me what you know.”

“What I know?” replied Shyrr, a bit confused.

“Show me what you know of the martial arts already, and I will learn where I should begin to teach.”

Shyrr walked up to the reed mat, hesitantly adopting a pose she’d seen in a kung-fu movie. “Tigers are pretty strong, sir,” she mentioned. “I wouldn’t want to hurt you.”

He grinned broadly this time. “I do not believe that will be an issue. Show me.”

Shyrr shrugged and launched a kick at the old man’s head. He dodged swiftly, without even blinking. “Are you sure you’re trying?” he taunted.

Shyrr growled, annoyance building up inside her. She was certain she’d seen this exact scene in a movie before, the old master easily beating the youth, but she felt powerless to stop it at this point. She threw everything she knew at the old man, and when he dodged even that, leapt at him ferally with everything she knew from her life as a tiger. He proved as adept at grappling as at straight-up fighting, and soon Shyrr found herself facedown in a pin on the mat. She stopped struggling, realizing that her intentions had fled her and that there had been little but careless anger driving the last half of the fight; as if on cue, the master released her from his hold. She looked up unsteadily, brushing her hair back out of her face.

The master inclined his head to her, kindly. “You show great promise. That was an impressive display for someone with no training,” he admitted. “You got close to hitting me once or twice, and your strength is considerable, as you mentioned. In time, you will learn to let your actions flow with the speed of thought, and to use that strength in ways that will not be so easily subverted.” He paused, staring Shyrr in the eye. “Do you want to learn from me, Shyrr? It will not be an easy life- I am old, and I confess to having grown a little demanding in my years. But I am willing to train you.”

Shyrr stood up, running a hand through her sweat-dampened fur- a human feature that she wasn’t exactly pleased to have inherited- and noted with exasperated disbelief that not a single hair on the old man’s head had been disturbed. But his words were exciting, in a way, and she certainly had no better option to do with her life at the moment. “I think I’d like that, sir. I accept your offer.”

The man broke into a grin, and suddenly he seemed much smaller, more aged and somehow more human than the perfect font of wisdom he’d been a second ago. His hair leapt out of its straight waves into a tangled mess, and Shyrr noticed even his voice had become more real, somehow. “Whew,” he panted. “That’s not an easy act to maintain, you know.”

Shyrr couldn’t believe her eyes. “Wait. How did you… and, I mean… why?”

“The illusion? An old trick, for old men,” he chuckled. “Would you have agreed so willingly if I’d looked like a normal guy who maybe had a few years on his side and a black belt in some discipline you’d never heard of? No, probably not. The mystical side of martial arts is extremely important, but it’s definitely not everything, especially in this day and age. You’ve got to be able to deal with guns and robots and politics too, and if I didn’t at least try to prepare you for that side of things as well I’d feel negligent.” Thanh stopped, smirking. “Your first task as an apprentice is to go get me some chow mein from the Panda Kitchen down the street. I’m starving.”

Shyrr laughed out loud, and soon enough went to get her new master his noodles. It was the start of a very interesting relationship, and she soon grew to appreciate her situation as only one who has gained humanity from the outside can.

* * *

Eight months later, Shyrr found herself idly lying on the ground in the pool of light spilling from the window she’d broken in her wild flight that first night. Though she considered herself more or less fully human now, certain feline pleasures never truly got old, and napping in the late afternoon sun was one of them. Interestingly, though her transformation had likely been fueled by the werewolf’s lycanthropic bite, she was not plagued by the moon-linked form changes that they were so famous for. On the other hand, she couldn’t find any way to change back into a tiger or force her body to look fully human, so it was a bit of a tradeoff.

True to his word, Master Thanh did not teach her any specific style of martial arts; instead, he tailored his instruction to her strong suits, invoking many different moves developed in many different traditions over the centuries. She found her legs to be the most powerful natural weapons she possessed- her feline nature provided tough pouncing and sprinting muscles that translated well into kicks and lower-body movements. Her upper-body strength was considerable as well; she could out-lift Master Thanh and most of his students on any given day, but she was never exactly as powerful as some of the musclebound hulks that populated Paragon’s streets. It was just as well, though, she figured: part of it probably had to do with her being a female- a woman, she always corrected herself- and the rest didn’t really matter, anyway. Kicking was just more fun.

A news program was flickering lazily on the constantly malfunctioning TV in the corner of the room. Shyrr grudgingly stood up out of her puddle of sunlight and stalked over to the set, wondering yet again what exactly was wrong with it. With a careless shrug, she kicked the TV on the side and the picture flickered into coherence.

“…riots broke out today along the 700 block of Washington street today,” a worried-looking newscaster was saying. “The police are unsure as to what sparked so many people to such heights of destruction, but eyewitness accounts recall the eerie glowing green eyes of the rioters, and one scientific expert, fleeing the scene, provided this network with a brief mention of a “Rikti transformational drug”. Authorities urge all citizens to stay as far from the 700 block as possible, but- as always- the city greatly appreciates the assistance of any and all possessors of hero licenses. And now, we go to Phil, our weatherman. Phil?”

Shyrr blinked, thinking. The 700 block was only a few streets away from here, really, and she had gone down and picked up a hero license the other day, if only to have something to present to the Animal Control agents and occasional police inquiries into the rumors that a tiger was loose in the city. Master Thanh was out shopping, but Shyrr didn’t think he’d mind if she went out and had a little fun. She wrote out a quick note in Korean, one of the other skills Thanh had been teaching her, jammed it into the door where she was sure he’d notice it, and ran out into the afternoon sun. She slipped into an easy sprint, glorying in the feel of the exercise and the chance, at long last, to truly be a hero.

(There's actually a bit more of this to come- Kajar, the other tiger, has his own origin as well. I've not quite gotten around to getting it all down to paper yet, though. I'll probably post it sometime in the future. )



Oh, and a final note, on the basis of FYI: I love getting comments, even negative ones; feel free to drop me a note, and I'd love to hear any criticism you may have- especially if it's legitimate and helps me be a better writer. (I know I get really heavy-handed with descriptions and the character's emotional states... Show-not-tell writing is a bit overrated, in my opinion: I'd rather perfectly capture the moment and let someone else relive it. That said, I am well aware that I take things to an extreme sometimes and it's nice to hear where I've been laying things on too thickly.) I even like getting things like, "Yo, I read the first paragraph, and damn are you long winded." I guess I'm just an attention-starved puppy, really, but there are worse faults, I suppose.

Hope you enjoy, and if you did like it, I have another story in the works that may or may not be out within a few days...



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Word to your maternal progenitors!

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