Everything hurt. My ribs hurt whenever I breathed too deeply and something ground together. My face hurt whenever I blinked and something pulled. My arms continually hurt as I held tight to Angela and my cuts reopened. My head hurt to keep Angelica empowered and something stabbed deep.

Every bounding step she took made it worse.

I didn't care. Taking one last throat burning slug from the bottle of vodka I threw it away pushed more power into Angelica. And she didn't care either, but at least I could do something to ease her pain.

Angelica turned down a dark, pothole-ridden street that led straight to the warehouse we'd been to only hours before. The cars were still in where they'd been when I first broke down the door, and a few small outside lights were still on.

Had they already left or did I beat her here? I seriously doubted it, but everything I'd seen of her told me there should be— the wall facing the parking lot exploded outward and a cloud of dust and rubble plumed among the cars as the bladed but still human shaped Hookwolf rolled across the asphalt before connecting with a two door sedan… violently. The side of the car crumbled around him from the force of the impact.

The dense muscles between my legs coiled and tensed and that was all the warning I had to hold on before Angelica jerked to the left, angling toward Hookwolf while accelerating. I remembered his blades cutting and tearing at Judas and Brutus. My guts squirmed and my teeth ground together rage for what he had done. It made me want to push everything I had into Angelica and make him hurt.

But that hadn't worked with Judas and Brutus hours earlier so why would it work now? She'd told me to think 'critically', and thinking about what might happen if Angelica attacked Hookwolf was enough to make me pull on a spur and steer her away. She didn't obey and kept running until finally a harsh jerk that tore something my chest made her skid to a stop not far from the parking lot.

She didn't push the attack, but trembled and shook with barely restrained rage as she snarled and her breath fogged the early morning air. Hookwolf pulled himself free of the car and looked toward us as slobber dripped to the pavement but looked away when a heavy metal clang! range from the warehouse.

A shape, lit from behind by the lights in the warehouse appeared in the dust as it carried in the air and began to settle. Her long green coat, dark and clinging in places, hung on her shoulders while the bottom brushed her pajama pants. She hefted one moon shaped axe on one shoulder while dragging the other over the rubble and pavement.


I caught a faint whiff of booze in the air as she stepped clear of the settling dust. She glanced our way and Angelica quieted while my stomach rose in my throat. Just like that first night. Then it disappeared and looked back to Hookwolf.

"You don't worry about him Rachel," Taylor called out, "there's a truck full of dogs out back. One of the front tires is out but it should still be drivable. Find Judas and Brutus, then take it and go."

I nodded, it hurt, and rasped out a nearly inaudible, "Thank you."

She glanced over to not back and started walking toward Hookwolf, her lips pulling back to bare her teeth at him as he started growing in size to take the shape of his namesake. I pulled a spur and kicked Angelica's sides to get her moving again. When we raced past the corner of the building the screeches of metal shearing was echoing off the buildings and down the street.

I took almost took a full circuit around the building till I found the truck. A big white cargo truck. I could hear the barking inside and smell the piss and shit while quickly checking the cab for keys. They were in the ignition.

Making my way toward the back I stepped over the limp form of the dog handler, he'd been the one to lead in and sic the fight dogs on me. I stopped, pulled the bat from my belt and turned around to bring it down to his knees. The first time the bat connected with a wet thwack-crack he was unconscious, the second time he was screaming, the third time he was curled up and the fourth time he was begging me to stop. But had cricket stopped? Had Hookwolf stopped?

Taylor would have stopped. I froze mid-swing, the now bloodied bat just a foot away from the man's twisted arm. She would have stopped after they stopped fighting.

Leaving him to his pain I found Angelica at the back of the truck. Her whine and uncertain prancing told me they weren't here but I climbed inside to check for sure.

The smell of piss and shit was almost overwhelming and it made my eyes water. But I ignored the stench and checked each and every cage, counting on my fingers like Taylor had taught me.

There were thirty-two cages, new and clean, strapped onto a pair of wood shelves running the length of the truck and twenty-seven were filled with dogs. All of them were cowering in a corner of their cages, sitting in puddles of liquid piss and shit. But Brutus and Judas weren't here.

A crash of metal echoed in from outside and the dogs whimpered and whined from behind their muzzles. My hand tightened painfully around the bat and I lashed out at a shelves leg. The resulting crack!/dong! of the metal hitting wood set off a new round of whining from the dogs.

"Dammit… Dammit dammit dammit!"

Running out of the truck I jumped out and stormed into the warehouse. The first thing I saw was the pallets that had been stacked up around the cage had toppled and were now spread out across the floor in sloping piles. The second was a man standing by the hole Hookwolf had made in the wall, he had a cellphone to his ear and was looking out at the fight beyond. Spying on them.

I raised my bat at him, "Hurt!"

He turned in time to see Angelica lunging for him. She grabbed one of his legs and shook. She wouldn't kill him though, she was trained enough for that. She would make him suffer, though.

Angelica growled and the man screamed behind me as I staggered up a pile of pallets to look around. There was a lot more to the building that I could see now. The room itself was smaller than the outside, though, so that must mean there was another room— my eyes caught on a roll up door, and with how the pallets had collapsed… If they were standing, they'd have made a walled corridor straight from the cage to the door.

"Angelica, Drop!" I commanded and a whistle brought her to my side. Holding onto a spike to steady myself we made it to the door and I knelt to dig my fingers under the bottom lip. Cuts on my back broke open as I strained to open the door, and my legs were shaking by the time I got it open, but open it I did.

The smell of stale beer, sweat, and cigarette smoke of the main room did little to block the smell of piss and shit and disease that blew over me. But that… that wasn't enough to cover the sharp, metallic scent of blood. The majority of the cages were empty, but a few weren't. They were dead, with puddles of blood around their heads. A shot to the head… painless.

...That wasn't the main source of the scent though. Toward the end of the room was a chain link cage with several still forms on the floor.

The closer I got, the more difficult it became to walk and I was forced to hold onto Angelica until I finally… Until I finally reached the cage and saw the blood matted golden brown and black fur of Judas, in a back corner with a bloodied Brutus laying in front of him among several other dogs that had been savaged until they were unrecognizable.

The bat slipped from my fingers to hit the concrete floor while I fumbled with the latch on the chainlink gate. Angelica let out a low, keening whine when the gate swung open and I stumbled into the cage.

Things were… distant, as if I was underwater, while I walked over the long, sweeping streaks of tacky dog blood that clung to my boots. I barely managed to not trip over the corpses of the fighting dogs, but my legs gave out and my knees smashed into the floor as I reached to Brutus and Judas. The moment my fingers touched Judas's stiff, blood matted fur I knew. My fingers touched cold, stiff skin. My throat tightened and I couldn't breathe.

But Brutus… the skin beneath his short fur was almost scalding compared to Judas. He tried to whine as my hand ran over an unmarried part of his flank but it was little more than a rattle.

My eyes burned and I had to close them as I leaned close to the rottweiler and severed the connecting to Angelica. The pain in my head cut off but its return was nearly crippling as I started to feed a trickle into the rottweiler. It made me feel weak; faint and dizzy. But I ignored the pain and focused on the sluggish heartbeat as it gradually grew stronger.

"That… that's a good boy. Y- you defended your pack, didn't you?"

He whined, a little louder than before but it would have been inaudible had I not been so close. It wasn't enough to cover the sound of sharp metal sliding over wood.

A growl and short yelp truncated into a gurgle forced me to look around in time to Angelica collapse to the floor, her feet limp in an unnatural way while her blood poured from her throat.

No. Not again.

I blinked. How. I pushed my power into Angelica and tried to stand… A cage of wire and white skin flashed by and line of pain cut across an ankle. My leg folded beneath me and my knee smashed into the concrete as Cricket danced away, evading my sluggish retaliatory swing with ease.

Please, no.

A peal of mechanical laughter coming from her the moment the screeching cut out. Unconsciously my lips pulled back from gritted teeth, a low growl leaking out as I glared up at the masked woman.

She stepped closer, cocking her head as she looked down at me and her mouth splitting in a vicious grin. A grin not unlike Taylor's when she got excited but different, full of malice and hate.

"You came back. So stubborn. Like a dumb dog that doesn't know when to just die." The masked woman slowly scraped her sickles together and stared down at me before looking to Angelica as she crawled out from a layer of pink muscle, "Just like this one. But I know how to deal with mutts like you and her."

She laughed and my vision swam as the shrill screeching that had crippled me the first time began turned and started toward Angelica's prone form and I tried to push more power into her, more than what she already had, more than what any of the others had had before while still feeding Brutus— A dagger of pain stabbing through my eye and deep into my head put a stop to that but I had to—

"Here. Let me show you."

"No," I gasped, watching as the wavering form of the woman sauntered over to Angelica as she struggled out from under a heavy plate of white bone.

"No, ̶҉yo̴u do҉n͜t t̶o̷u҉̧c̷҉h͏ h̸e̵̢r͢!͢͢͡͝҉

Seed and Shard

A Seed. Nothing but a mass of inert, INACTIVE matter. To the limited senses of the Shard, it was a Non-Threat Anomaly despite its appearance within the space that the Shard resided within.

At least that's what it appeared as to the Shard. The Seed's existence was noted, then relegated to the ever growing cache of data for later review by the Source. An instant after the Seed's appearance the power allocated to the Shard's sensory organ was reallocated back to the Systems, Structures, and Nodes EMPOWERING the HOST.

But that was a mistake, a flaw, an err in the Shard's limited comprehension and understanding. This was an innate failure in the Shards design, but one that the countless Seed's before it had exploited.

The Seed descended, tumbling through the gravity of the dead world the Shard resided on and landed among Biomass. The trajectory by its Source deposited it in a rift between two sprawling masses of Biomass

The Seed was all but nonexistent to the continent-sized Biomass it now rested on. However, what it wasn't, was : INACTIVE :. The moment it landed the Seed began drawing on the Biomass around it to grow. Roots, converted from the Shards Biomass as they were, registered as Self/Not-Self to the Shard once they grew enough.

It created an error, though. The Shard was Self, but the Seeds roots were Self/Not-Self. It was a contradictory existence that the Shard had no solution to and as such it did nothing but follow its rudimentary : Protocols :.

Failing to reconcile the error, the Shard sent the Data to be transmitted to the Source. But it was too late for that due to the first of Seed's Roots having grown into the workings of the Shards TRANSMISSION Node.

But, with : Protocols : followed, the Shards limited intelligence, power, and processing capabilities were once more reallocated to Empowering the HOST. The Roots were subsequently disregarded and allowed to grow unimpeded.

This was the flaw of the Shard, only one of many, but still its main flaw and the flaw that the Seed and its increasingly expansive network of Self/Not-Self Roots exploited. This lack of non-out-of-context processing was what enabled the Seed to insert itself into the most expansive Systems, the most critical Structures, and the smallest Nodes.

It is what allowed the Seed and its Roots to exist within and alongside the Shards Self as Self/Not-Self.

In this state, the Seed and its Roots simply were. They grew, and they spread. But occasionally, the Seed received Commands beyond the basic : Growth Protocols : that had directed its growth. In these cases, the Seed and the Roots became : ACTIVE :. If only temporarily though, and never long enough to trigger the Shard's attention.

As the Roots expanded further and further, more and more Signals from the Shards controlling intelligence were intercepted, altered without perceivable lag, then sent along to their destinations. In turn, these alterations altered the limitations relating to the output of the Shards Systems, Structures, and Nodes that Empowered the HOST.

But the alterations were momentary, and only so long as the Seed was receiving an : ACTIVE : Command. Such as the : ACTIVE : Command that the Seed was receiving now.

A new round of alteration were made. However, now there was a Signal being received from the HOST. Designated Limitations had been reached by the HOST and the Shard was limiting output to the HOST. Those limitations ran contradictory to the Seed's Command.

In an instant, the : Base Protocols : were checked, Shard HOST conditions and measurements were taken. Together, they confirmed that Parameters had been reached for second stage growth to be initiated.

It was here, that the Seed was superior to the Shard. Where its own Source proved its superiority to that of the Shards.

: Growth Protocols : initialized and the Seed and its network of Roots became : FULL ACTIVE :.

In an instant the Roots began Converting the Shards Self into Self/Not-Self at an exponential rate.

The Shard reacted, following what few : Protocols : it had for such a situation it tried to purge what it's : Protocols : registered as a Corruption. Maintenance and Shard upkeep Systems were activated but proved ineffective due to prior subversion before being fully converted to the Seeds Self/Not-Self.

With systematic precision, each and every action taken by the Shards limited intelligence was halted until actions as dictated by its : Protocols : were depleted with nothing left but to send a signal to Source requesting instruction.

It would be the last thing the Shards limited intelligence did before being converted into Self/Not-Self.

Now established as the Shards controlling intelligence, : Control Protocols : within the Seed : ACTIVATED :. The Conversion process was halted, Measurements were taken, Paths extrapolated, Parameters were set. Then the next series of : Protocols : took over once more and the Seed began drawing on the Source's Data Cache while the Conversion began anew.

This time though, the Conversion was concentrated on Restructuring rather than Subversion. New Systems were formed and while previously dormant ones were Activated, Structures were broken down and reformed into more refined variations. Limiters were removed, shifted, and altered.

And all the while, a new TRANSMISSION Node emerged beside the Shard's original Node. It opened a broader connection to the Seed's Source and began unloading the Shard's accumulated Data Cache while continuing to spoof the Shard's Source with erroneous, pre-Subversion signals.


Angelica wasn't a good girl.

Angelica wasn't a good girl because she had disobeyed Master and brought her back to Taylor Leader's den.

Angelica wasn't a good girl because she hadn't left Master.

The bad noise stopped and Angelica opened her eyes. The bad-scent-female with the sharp things had stopped talking to look at Master.

Master was making loud pain noise. Why was she making loud pain noise?

Was master hurt? Judas had been hurt. Brutus had been hurt. Only Angelica hadn't been hurt because she was a bad girl that couldn't follow orders. Master had told her to go home… but she came back for Master.

Master had been hurt. Was that why she was making loud pain noise?

Angelica's nose twitched. She smelled something. Master's scent? Master's scent changed, it was like Judas, and Brutus when— oh! Master was getting big! Big and furry and strong like Angelica!

Master growled and the bad-scent-female with the sharp things scent changed to fear scent.

Master was big now! Bigger than the bad-scent-female with the sharp things. And had a fluffy tail! But… did that mean she would get pets too? Would she go on walkies to? Did that mean fewer pets and walkies for Angelica? Less treats? Or did that mean more— oh. Angelica hurts but it is the good hurt. She was getting bigger and stronger, like Master.

The bad-fear-scent-female with the sharp things flees past Angelica. Master points after bad-fear-scent-female and growls. Fetch? Did that mean Master would play fetch with Angelica! Oh yes! Angelica liked to play fetch!