Knight of Pawns
Five days to the full moon
Midnight. John is being executed at this very moment.
I’ve no more tears—I have to be strong, for the children’s sake. I’m all they have left now. I can hear the Werewolves howl outside, rejoicing—curs! We have to get away from them. Somehow.
John had attended several executions. The hunters had become very successful in smoking out mutants and, as team-leader, John was expected to witness their captives’ last moments—to see the animal strapped into the chair, the needle inserted, the body jerk just before the monitors flat-lined.
It had never crossed John’s mind that one day he would find himself strapped to that chair.
The belts bit into his neck, wrists and ankles. Were they expecting him to transform and jerk out of the restraints? He was a hunter not a… He could no longer think of them as animals. Not now. Not after he had learnt about Claire and the children. Claire. How could she have hidden it from him for thirteen years?
The chief warder, Jarod Kessing—his onetime friend—cleared his throat. John’s was the third and last execution that night. Most of the audience had left. The highlight of the show was over, after all. Neither Were had transformed, or put up much resistance. Now it was his turn. Did Kessing feel any distaste at killing one of their own? John inwardly snorted. A multiple murderer deserved no pity.
“John William Stuart, you have been sentenced to death by lethal injection for the murder of your wife, Claire Susan Stuart, and twelve-year-old children, Lisa Jane Stuart and Matthew John Stuart.”
Would Kessing believe him if he told him he had not killed Claire and the children, that his family had been taken by the Werewolves to blackmail him into passing on information about the hunters’ strategies and plans? He hadn’t complied, and Claire and the children had paid the penalty. He had murdered them, even if he hadn’t been the one to kill them.
The warder gave the orderly a slight nod. With deliberate slowness, the sour-faced man took up the syringe and small bottle. The florescent lighting above his head reflected on the clear glass, on the man’s white coveralls, the whitewashed walls. The stench of antiseptic and fear constricted John’s throat. His fists clenched. This was it. His heart thumped—the discomfort proved he was still alive. But not for much longer. His heartbeat, amplified by the monitors attached to his torso, filled the claustrophobic room with sound, bouncing off the reinforced steel walls, the fortified door. No one could escape this. Not even the Were had escaped.
The needle pierced his arm. The beats of his heart spiked. Death raced up his vein. He jerked against his bonds. Claire. Lisa. Matthew—
Darkness. Not the darkness of the night with a glimmer of leaf or insect to show you that your eyes still functioned. Total darkness. His hand moved off his chest and hit an obstacle inches above his head. A few inches to the side, his hand hit wood. A box. A coffin. John drummed his feet. Trapped. In so little space.
He forced his breathing to slow. Had Kessing, or the orderly, tried to save one of their own? But to be buried alive was a worse punishment, unless…
John moved his hands over the wood, then groped the space next to his hips. His hand hit a hard object in a pocket of his prison overalls. The size and shape were familiar. He struggled to extract the thin stick out of the pocket, then aimed the tip above his chest. The laser beam flared bright in the enclosed space. Squeezing his eyes shut, John pressed the trigger again. Thin wood burned and flaked, splinters fell over his chest, arms and face. John butted the wood above his head. It creaked and cracked and gave way—slightly. He inhaled, then lashed out in the limited space.
He broke away the splintered wood, adrenaline giving his hands added strength. He sat up and groped around in the dark. The coffin was less than a metre down a narrow well of dirt walls. Hopefully, the grave hadn’t been sealed yet. John placed his shoulder against the wooden slabs and heaved. Fresh clean air filled his lungs. A drop splashed on his face. Another followed. He had never been so glad to feel the trickle of rain before.
A snarl behind him sent him vaulting out of the grave and crouching into a defensive stance. The eyes of a panther glowered at him in the darkness. He wasn’t the only one to survive the death sentence. Two had been executed before him. Where there was one, there could be another. A slight movement behind him. With a fluid movement John turned to face both threats. A teenage boy. The boy hadn’t transformed, but that didn’t make him less deadly. John raised the laser.
“Hey, what’s going on here?”
A flashlight juddered on and off graves. The cat growled, long teeth gleamed, and it loped silently towards that tell-tale light. John raced after it.
A yell, cut short. The beam of light danced over the graves. Then silence.
John came to a standstill a few paces away from the sprawled figure on the ground. He tightened his grip on the laser. The panther rose off the body, back arched. Its tail swished. The cat’s low throaty growl was loud in the silence.
Their eyes locked.
“The watchman would have alerted the guards,” John said.
The panther snarled. It didn’t take its eyes off him.
The shouts and flurry of movement in the distance proved him right. Of course he was right. He had been one of the good guys before this nightmare began. He knew the protocol. They had two minutes, max.
John lowered the laser.
The boy dashed up to the panther, his eyes wild with fear. “Hunters!” he gasped. He was probably just a year or two older than Matthew.
Would the system have strapped his prank-loving little boy to an execution chair too?
John gritted his teeth. The cat and the boy were Were and he was a hunter, but for now the three of them were prey.
He’d help the Were boy if he could—for Matthew. John gripped the boy’s arm. “If you want to live, we need to go.”
The boy nodded. They bolted away from the approaching men. The panther followed. They had to get out of the graveyard and disappear in the warren of city streets beyond the prison walls.
It wouldn’t be easy. He had helped train the hunters himself.
I had to fall in love with a hunter. How ironic—the only kind of man to whom I could never reveal the truth. John, my love—I cannot believe you’re gone. Only the children are left. I have to get them away from the Wolves. We are useless to them now. Perhaps we’re still alive because they don’t want to upset my pod. The Wolves have been ruthless in so many ways. They terrorize the cities and the hunters’ exterminate every Were they can lay their hands on, Wolves or not. When will it ever end?
I’ve realized there’s something else to worry about. It’s near the twins’ time. The stress of the last few months seems to have brought forward their moonday. I have seen the signs—they are about to change for the first time. Perhaps this full moon. I’ve five days to get away and take the children to water.
John, the cat and the boy raced towards the tall wall surrounding the prison graveyard. At six foot five, John was the tallest, but the graveyard wall was much higher. Behind him, the cat sprang, landed briefly on his shoulders, and leapt for the wall. It balanced itself on the ledge, its paws narrowly avoiding being impaled by the metal spikes. John reached for the boy. Why hadn’t he transformed? He furrowed his brow, then shrugged. Now was not the time to ask. The boy used John’s knee as a step up and, with his hands braced against the wall, he stood on John’s shoulders. The boy pushed a bundle he carried onto the ledge and wriggled up to sit astride the wall between the spikes.
The Weres looked down at him. Would they leave him to face the hunters alone? He wouldn’t be surprised. He was the enemy.
The boy unrolled the bundle. Prison clothing. Probably the cat’s. The boy tied one trouser leg to a spike and dangled the orange overalls down towards him.
“Pull yourself up using these. I’ll hold on. I’m strong enough.”
John nodded. A couple of seconds later he was sitting next to the boy. The half-healed small surgical wound on John’s abdomen stung. He’d torn it open, but he ignored the pain.
Faint streaks of dawn lit up the horizon, silhouetting the city skyline. A wide road lay beneath them. Beyond that, the crisscrossing streets of Northton glimmered wet and dark. Just what he needed to make tracking difficult for the hunters. Without another word, the three leapt down and raced across the empty street.
The need to find shelter pounded in John’s mind with every step. Soon people would be up, the streets would fill, and the florescent orange clothing would alert even the most unobservant passer-by. He had to find shelter. They thundered on.
The faint rev of a powerful car. John pulled the boy into a doorway and crouched down. The panther huddled in front of the boy. A slow-moving patrol car drove past. John gripped the laser and hoped he wouldn’t need to use it against his own kind. The car drove on.
They set off again, the cat leading the way. He was content to let her, for the moment. Better in front than at his back. They kept to the shadows and narrow side roads. John’s half-healed wound throbbed and bled. He clenched his jaw. He couldn’t let the pain dull his senses.
They had to find shelter, then he could rest.
The boy was panting, his hand pressed against his side. A stitch, perhaps. Even the cat was slowing down. John’s mouth thinned. They couldn’t stop. The cat bit into his trouser leg. Annoyed, John jerked it out of its mouth.
The cat’s length rippled. A human form took shape. The Were straightened. In the weak light of the streetlamp, John could tell it was a female, an old female, with stringy white hair down to her heaving bony shoulders. The boy flushed and looked away.
The woman’s deep-set eyes blazed. “Unchanged—when I tell you to stop, you stop.”
John exhaled. Unchanged, indeed. “We’re not safe here. We have to find a hiding place.”
The woman snatched the bundle from the boy’s hands, turned her back on them, and quickly slipped into the prison coveralls.
“Follow me,” she said. Without another word, the woman padded towards the alley they had just passed. She walked down its length, placed her shoulder against a flaking wooden door at the far end, and pushed. The door opened with a strident creak. John winced and nervously glanced up and down the narrow byway. No one seemed about and hopefully, no one would investigate what had caused the noise.
The woman slid in through the opening, the boy followed. John went in last and pushed the door shut.
The place felt empty and reeked of death and decay. Refuse littered the floor. The woman led them through a labyrinth of graffiti-covered rooms and staircases. Then, she pushed aside a heap of empty packing cases. An opening, like a giant mouse-hole, had been punched low down the wall. It was just large enough for a normal-sized adult to squeeze through. The woman and boy got in easily. It took longer for John. When he was finally through, the woman reached back out and pulled the packing cases against the opening. They had a hiding place.
The compact room had the musty smell of neglect and disuse. A mattress lay on the floor in a corner and an old wooden shelving unit stood next to it. Bottles of water, tinned food, packed snacks, and a first aid kit were stacked on the shelves.
“What is this place?”
The woman shrugged. “We’re not the first Were in need of shelter. We keep these refuges stocked for whoever needs a hiding place. No Unchanged has ever been brought here. I’ll probably have to kill you.”
John’s muscles tensed.
The woman’s chapped lips twitched and the wrinkles on her face deepened. “Relax, hunter. I could have killed you before, if I wanted to. We need each other, for the moment.”
John nodded. Truce. And they had food and water. That was more than he had hoped for.
“I’d prefer to be called John.”
“Luke.” The boy picked tins of tuna and peaches, and packets of potato chips. He tossed a packet to John and grinned. “Let’s party.”
Four days to the full moon
Lisa and Matthew doze by my side. I’ve used my voice to lull them to sleep. It’s how I kept my secret safe from John. He used to say my voice relaxed him. He never suspected its power. Better singers than I have enthralled sailors, and wrecked ships. I just needed to make John sleep while I enjoyed the freedom of the sea. It’s why I insisted on a sea-side home.
I’ll soon wake the children. I have a plan. They’ll get very little rest for the next few days—if my plan works.
John shook the woman awake, placing his hand over her mouth. She struggled for a moment before stiffening. Like him, she caught the sounds of movement beyond the packing cases. John slowly released her and took out his laser. The woman’s eyes followed his movements. Her claws grew, curved and long.
The boy slept on. Better not to wake him. He was too young to become a killer.
How had the hunters found them? The teams were well trained—he knew that well. Yet he hadn’t left any tracks, as far as he knew. Perhaps someone had seen them going into the abandoned building after all.
Static crackled. A deep voice answered. Another voice called, farther away. John strained to hear. He didn’t recognize any of the voices. Not his unit then. Perhaps it was better that way. He wasn’t sure he could fire against his own men. The voices moved away. John exhaled. He hadn’t been conscious of having stopped breathing. The woman’s eyes met his. Then she lay down again.
John leaned against a wall and closed his eyes, his fingers rubbing the itch out of the oozing wound. He had to think. Someone—perhaps the Wolves—had set him up. The kitchen in their tiny sea-side house, Claire’s pride and joy, had been dripping in blood. The prosecutor had been very convincing: Claire was betraying him. John had found out the children weren’t his and lost his reason. His sentence—death.
And no one showed mercy towards Were.
So, why were the three of them alive?
They must have been administered the wrong chemicals. But the system didn’t make that kind of mistake. No, of course it wasn’t a mistake—the laser in his pocket had been placed there on purpose. So if it wasn’t a mistake then, what?
“How did you get out of the coffin?” he whispered. The woman’s eyes opened. An eyebrow twitched.
“I used my claws and dug myself out. I heard the boy cry out and dug him out too.”
So he was the only one with a laser. They hadn’t armed the Were—that had to mean something. He wasn’t sure what yet.
“I’ve been wondering why we’re alive too. Perhaps you know something I don’t, hunter?” The woman’s eyes narrowed. She looked very much like the cat she changed into.
The look of suspicion on her face deepened. John shook his head, muscles tense. His fingers itched to reach for the laser he had placed on the floor by his side, but one false mood and her claws would rip into him. Or at least she’d try to. He would be faster, and kill her first. He glanced at the boy. His eyes were closed, his chest rose and fell regularly.
“Why hasn’t the boy transformed?”
The woman exhaled. “You ask too many questions.”
“He’s Were though, isn’t he?”
The woman pursed her lips, then shrugged. “Of course. He’s young. At his age, he needs the full moon to transform. Only adults can change at will. I thought you Unchanged would have understood that much about us.”
The full moon. The hunters thought the effect of the moon on the Were was just a myth, especially as the mutants attacked at all times of the month. When was the next full moon and what animal would the boy become?
The children listen to music through their earphones. Thank Poseidon the Wolves let them keep their music. It should shield them from my voice. I sing for our lives.
I hear the commotion outside. They are coming. I sing louder and higher. The glass of the one window in our hut cracks. Good. That’s one way out. The Wolves unlock the padlock. I hear the chink of the chain, the scrap of the key against the lock. My heart thuds. The children’s eyes are huge. Lisa opens her mouth. Instead of the scream I expect, she joins me in my melody. Matthew stares at us. Then he joins in. My children—they are so young. They haven’t yet changed and yet they have discovered the one weapon nature has given us.
The door crashes open. A half-changed wolf fills the doorway, gripping a gun. We aim our three voices at him. The gun fires, and the wolf topples at our feet.
Lisa gasps and slides to the floor.
“We need to get going,” John said. The sun had set and the darkness would empty the streets once more.
The woman—Marie—stretched and rose off the mattress, using a shelf to push herself upright. Despite the rest, her face was furrowed and grey. “We need a change of clothing. These orange suits are too conspicuous. I’ll see what I can find. In the meantime, eat something and get ready.”
She undid her coveralls. Her skin undulated like crinkled paper, and she fell to the ground on all fours. The black cat’s fur was long enough to hide any wounds or scars she might have. She leapt out of the hole in the wall and soundlessly darted off.
“We’ve got to leave now,” John said.
The boy looked up from the tin of tuna he was scraping clean with his fingers.
“She might be followed when she returns. We’ll wait for her somewhere else. If no one’s following her, we’ll show ourselves.”
The boy stuffed a handful of packets of potato chips into his coverall. It was a good idea. Who knew when they’d find their next meal. John took a few bottles of water. They could survive without food, but not without water.
Marie came back an hour later gripping a bag in her mouth. From their hiding place across the hallway, John saw her push the crates aside. He sensed rather than saw her shock when she noted the empty room. She dropped the bag and yowled. John grabbed the back of the boy’s coveralls and placed his palm over the boy’s mouth. The boy struggled, but John didn’t let go. Seconds passed. No Were or hunter crept down the corridor. He eased the pressure off the boy’s mouth and let go of him.
“Marie, we’re here.” The boy ran to her. The cat leapt on him, tongue licking his face. Luke chuckled and pushed his face away. John followed at a more leisurely pace. The cat’s gaze held his before she worried the bag with her paws and tossed out a t-shirt and a pair of jeans. Luke knelt by her and pulled out two smaller t-shirts, another trousers and a pair of Bermuda shorts.
They could blend in now and escape the net. Unless, of course, the hunters already knew where they were.
I drive like a drunken maniac. I’ve never driven a jeep, but it was the first vehicle I found which had its key in the ignition. The Wolves were unconscious when we left, but I’ve no idea how long the effect will last. Wolves are hardier than the Unchanged.
Matthew is on the back seat, cradling Lisa. My baby girl. Thank Poseidon the bullet passed right through her. Still, she’s lost a lot of blood and she cries out in pain at every jolt. She needs medical help and she needs the ocean. We are far from both.
John slid into the driver’s seat. Stealing a car had been his idea. “Where to? We need to be off the streets by daybreak.”
The woman got into the passenger seat. “Head out of the city towards the mountains.”
John’s eyebrows rose. The mountains. Was that where the Were hid? Neither torture nor bribery had revealed the location of the dens. The Were preferred death to betraying their own.
The mountains were a good two days’ drive away.
Three days to the full moon
They didn’t hide during the day. Marie and Luke voted against him on that. They thought the t-shirts would be enough to allay suspicion. So be it. The mountains beckoned, and the sooner they reached them the better. Few ventured into them—the rugged peaks, wild animals, and hidden crevasses had snatched too many lives. The Were had to be desperate to have chosen the mountains—and very clever. One could disappear up there and never be found.
Marie spelled him at the wheel. They left the city behind without once being stopped. Hadn’t the hunters put up roadblocks? That was standard procedure when trying to corner someone on the run.
It strengthened his suspicions.
They drove through empty roads, cutting through barren countryside and desolation, the twisted metal and rubble on either side a stark reminder of the nuclear furnace that had destroyed and made uninhabitable most of the cities, over two hundred years before. The mutants had begun to appear soon after that. Many thought the nuclear explosions had caused the mutations. Others spoke of experiments gone wrong. Or speculated that the mutants were a new species altogether.
John and Marie took it in turns to doze, drive, and keep a lookout. They ate the food they had taken from the safe house and they rationed the water—they had no money to buy more. And they were running out of gas.
No one seemed to be following them. Which didn’t mean no one was.
Two days to the full moon
I crash through the undergrowth, sensing the call of the ocean. I carry Lisa—her fever burns her up. Matthew trails behind me. We are so tired, but I cannot stop.
Eyes glow in the undergrowth.
I freeze. The breeze caresses my face and carries the stench of Wolf. I collapse onto my knees. Tears stream down my face. I put Lisa down. Matthew wheezes by my side, hands on knees. I raise my face and let out a long whistle. I cry out for my own kind, a cry of despair, a cry of longing. Our death knell.
The engine spluttered and died. John and the Were rolled the car off the road and into the bordering shrubs. Then, they set off to cover the remaining miles on foot.
One day to the full moon
“It’ll be a full moon tomorrow,” Luke said, looking up at the sky. The moon shone large and clear.
John glanced at him. Marie had said he needed the moon to change. “What’s your Were form, Luke?”
The boy’s eyes shone. “I can fly,” he said. “I’m a hawk. I can easily reach the den once I change. We’ll be safe there.”
So the dens were close. The Hawks’ and the Panthers’. Perhaps those of others too. A few months ago he’d have done anything to find the location of the dens. Now, he just hoped he wasn’t being used to set off a bloodbath. Marie and the boy deserved better.
John’s foot entangled in some briar and he stumbled. The boy gripped his arm, helping him find his footing. John smiled at him. Luke was young, but he had never complained or whined about the pace, the hunger and thirst. Marie loped ahead in cat form, but even her stamina was waning. She was an old old woman after all.
Nocturnal creatures rustled in the undergrowth and the uneven ground and darkness slowed them down. He’d be lucky not to break an ankle before reaching the dens. In the darkness, his eyes could not see as well as a cat, or hawk. They pushed on.
The ground disappeared from beneath John’s feet. Luke yelled out too, his foot smashing against John’s head. John’s back hit something sharp and piercing. He crashed to the bottom of the crevice, landing on one of his legs. John heard it snap, like a twig. Pain pierced him, then he sank into darkness.
“John, John, can you hear me? John.”
John moaned and opened his eyes. Luke’s terrified eyes stared down at him.
“Marie, he’s conscious.” Luke’s voice echoed. The old woman’s answer was faint and indistinct. John looked up. He and Luke were a long way down. Daylight filtered from above.
John struggled to sit up, and gasped. “Your leg’s broken,” Luke told him. “Marie threw down a branch and I’ve tried straightening your leg and tying it with strips off my t-shirt.”
The leg looked twice its normal size. Pain shot up it each time John moved. The boy had done a fairly good job of immobilizing his leg though, considering the situation they were in and the boy’s inexperience.
John fingered his ribs. He suspected he had broken a few too. There was no way he could climb up without help.
Clatter boomed down the crevice walls. The whine crescendoed, the ground rattled and tiny stones bounced down from above.
“Helicopters,” Luke whispered. The noise receded. “We’ve been hearing them for some time now.”
John licked parched lips. “Are you hurt?” He ran his eyes over the boy’s bare torso and legs. Scratches, caked blood, dirt.
“No, I’m fine.”
“Then listen carefully. There’s a way to climb out. The fissure is narrow enough for you to be able to brace your back against one side and push up with your legs against the other. I want you and Marie to go on up the mountain. Leave me. You have to leave, both of you.”
The boy shook his head. “We’re not leaving yet. I can fly out tonight. It’s the full moon, remember? And then we’ll get the others to help us lift you out of here.”
John gripped the boy’s shoulder. “No, listen to me. The hunters will be here soon. You’ve heard the helicopters. They’ve been following us. They want to know where the dens are. Haven’t you realized that that is why they let us live? I don’t want them to catch you or Marie again. Go. They’ll have to make do with me.”
The boy shook his head.
“Luke, for goodness sake—do as I ask! Get away from me. I think a tracking device must have been inserted in me. They may have inserted one in you and Marie too for all I know—if so, you have to get it out of you somehow. A week before the execution I was in pain. At the time I had thought it ironic that I was operated for appendicitis, when I was to be killed within a week. They must have inserted it then. There has to be a reason why we weren’t killed. I think they want us to lead them to the dens.”
The boy’s eyes widened. His hand pushed down the band of his Bermuda shorts. He had a tiny blood-flecked scar, similar to John’s.
John looked up at the opening. The cat had good ears. He raised his voice. “Marie, take the boy and leave, but don’t go to the dens.”
“John Stuart, you’re a good man, for an Unchanged.” The old woman chuckled. “Even if the hunters know the dens are in the mountains, they’re still a fair bit away, and there are many obstacles and traps to overcome. The hunters won’t find the dens so easily.”
A helicopter clattered closer.
Marie waited until the noise died down before continuing. “I too was taken down to the infirmary last week—so we’d all have to get rid of whatever they’ve implanted in us. Both I and Luke have claws. We’ll get those tracking devices out before we move another step up this mountain. As for abandoning you, that’s something you will have to decide. You can join us, or go back with the hunters. The choice is yours.”
“I can’t come with you, Marie. I’ve a broken leg, remember?”
“I may be old, but my memory works fine. There’s a way—”
“There’s no way I can get out of here without being pulled out and in the state I’m in I can’t help you.”
“You can grow a pair of wings.” Marie’s words sent ice down John’s spine.
The boy bit his lip. “I can do it,” he said. “I can change you, if you want. I know how it’s done. I saw our alpha change his wife. She was Unchanged and wanted to be like us.”
To fly. He’d become a mutant, an abominable, a Were. He would be one of the hunted.
Claire had been a Were. The children too, probably. Claire and the children—they weren’t despicable. They weren’t disgusting.
He’d give anything to turn back time and hold them in his arms again. If only he could tell them how much he loved them, even if they were Were. He would become one of them. He’d grow wings. He’d join the Were and help them defend themselves. Maybe one day he’d be able to persuade the hunters, the Unchanged, that they were wrong to fear all Weres—just because they were different didn’t make them all evil. And maybe one day he would forgive himself for not being man enough to be trusted by his wife.
John looked up at the patch of daylight. The light was fading. Soon the moon’s light would filter through the undergrowth trellised across the top of the crevice. John fingered the small red scar on his side. The torn stitches oozed. A hawk’s claw could rip the scar open. It’d hurt like hell, but he was a hunter. He could take it. He hoped the boy and the woman could too.
Then Luke would bite him and the sky would be theirs.
Full moon – three months later
The swish of the ocean always seems to me to wash away my troubles. Lisa and Matthew squeal and splash in the surf. The moonlight shines on their fins. They whistle and click at each other. Other young Were-dolphins join in the sport. I smile and allow the ocean to change my upper body. I have this pod to thank for our lives. They had been on the way to the ocean too when they heard my whistle. Their trucks and jeeps mowed down the three Wolves. They took us in, saw to Lisa’s wound, and helped me ease the twins’ into their first transformation.
I raise my eyes to the moon. A flight of huge hawks are momentarily silhouetted against it. They fly past, heading for the mountains.
John, my love. If you are looking down on your children, know that they are safe.