The crackling roar of the railgun flowed through the streets of Babylon, filling the narrow stairwell within electric rumble. Hot on its heels was a wet POP and a heavy SMACK. Karim sprung up, drawing Kayla’s shotgun from under his coat, unfolding and extending the stock.
Galen! I seek your aid! Tear ward and the watcher spirit apart!
A distant wolf howled. Images of fur and fang flashed through his mind’s eye. Heavy crunching and shrieking seared his mind’s ear. A construct detonated in the Aether, the energetic shockwaves rippling through the world, a pressure front he felt in his soul.
He charged up the stairs, constantly angling himself to cover the roof, shotgun pointed just below the horizontal, ready to snap up and kill. Halfway up the stairs, three dark silhouettes presented themselves before him, hands going for waistbands, torsos and legs twisting around.
Where is Jamal Wright?
A powerful force tugged at his arms, invisible paws guiding his aim. Karim surrendered it, allowing the power to swing his shotgun up and to the rightmost target—
“SNIPER!” a Wolf screamed. “Take—”
The railgun thundered. A loud wet SMACK followed. A dark cloud spewed from his head. He rag dolled instantly, falling on his face.
Karim barely registered it, the entirety of his conscious mind tunneling down into the narrow window of his red dot sight, seeking Wright, still moving the gun—
“Deadeye! Take the squirter!”
“Negative! Gun is red!”
And already the other Wolf was in motion, loosing a berserker roar, charging Karim, hands snatching at his waistband. Karim smoothly swung left, brought the red dot over his chest, clicked down the safety, fired.
A circle of shot hammered his chest, sixteen pellets devastating his blood-bearing organs. As the thug slumped over, Karim dashed up the remaining steps, shotgun ready.
Wright ran with supernatural speed, crossing the roof in moments. Through the optic, Karim saw Wright peeking over his shoulder. Karim fired—
The buckshot passed harmlessly over his chest, over his head, shattering the living room window. Wright crashed into the hole, finishing what the buckshot started. The blinds parted around him, then just as abruptly closed off to hide him.
Karim fired again. The shredded blinds danced in the pellet cloud, revealing furniture and nothing more. He pivoted to the right, preparing to fire again—
A downed Shadow groaned. Twitched. Howled.
His suit melted into his body. Fur billowed over his arms and neck and back. The massive wound over his belly began to close over. Buds appeared parallel to his spine, blossoming into black leathery wings, spreading out to cover his back. He planted his palms against the floor and lifted himself off and—
Karim blasted him in the head.
What was left of him went still forever.
Karim turned back to the first threat he had shot. This one was motionless, but in the STS, he had learned never to take chances. Karim carefully lined up the sights, and with a trigger press reduced his head to fragments and gore.
He glanced at the other body. At the spreading pool under what was left of his head. He was done.
Now for Wright. Where the hell was he?
Karim swept the expanse of windows before him. Kneeling, he swapped in a fresh ten-shot mag of buckshot, and focused.
Galen, I wish to borrow your eyes.
The Aether burned into his vision. Now he saw rivers of energy, the mingling of life and death and the Other, the vital energies of the corpses dispersing into the tapestry of the universe. He looked at the recent past, into the events for the past minute, looking for Wright—
Nothing but a black shadow.
Shit. Wright must have cast a shadow ward on himself the instant he’d fled inside. Karim swept the windows, peering into and through them, looking for traces of Wright’s soul, or at least a deep block of shadow that betrayed the novice psi.
Karim had to hunt him the old-fashioned way.
“Making entry,” Karim whispered.
And burst through the hole in the living room window. Flung the curtain aside. Brought up his gun.
The living room was empty. A talking head on the TV babbled about the killing at Kumar’s curry place. Phones and devices lay scattered on the coffee table. Dead ahead, a door opened into the kitchen. Next to it, another door fed into the bedroom.
“I know you’re in here! Come on out!” Karim yelled.
“Come on! Let’s finish this!”
As he yelled, Karim inched his way across the floor. He yanked the closet doors open, finding only an old jacket and other odds and ends. He spun back around, bringing his gun up—
Wright was lying in wait. Karim could sense him, sense his sweat and fear and rage. In such close quarters, all by himself, if he went in like this he’d be walking right into an ambush.
So Karim transformed.
Liquid lightning charged through him. He welcomed it, embraced it, became it, growing into the avatar of Galen the White, wolf and man united in one flesh and one will.
Now Karim-Galen could smell him. Wright had left a scent trail snaking into the bedroom, stinking of sweat charged with desperation and hormones. Behind that was another scent, the scent of a huge dog.
Wright had transformed. Of course. Just as Karim-Galen wouldn’t face him in his human form, Wright wouldn’t dare challenge an assassin without seizing every advantage he could get. There was only one way this could end, with blooded claws and dripping fangs, one last battle to decide who was the alpha of the wolves of Babylon.
Karim-Galen entered the kitchen and hurriedly swept it. He didn’t think there was anyone here, but it was better safe than sorry. Sure enough, he found no trace of hostiles.
Back at the kitchen entrance, he leaned out, covering the bedroom door. No sign of Wright. Karim-Galen approached, furred paws padding softly against parquet, approaching the—
You’re in the fatal funnel!
Karim-Galen shuffled to the right, taking himself out of the line of fire, and switched the shotgun to the left shoulder. Now he approached the door at an angle, exposing only the weapon and a slice of his head—
Another door. A bathroom door, right next to the bedroom door. Through the opening he spotted a reflection in a slice of mirror, a huge white wolf with a shotgun, and brought his gun—
Karim-Galen stopped. Relaxed a fraction. Lowered his weapon.
Decision time. Go left into the bathroom? Or right into the bedroom? Either way there would be uncleared space to his flank, space where Wright could be hiding.
Karim-Galen backed up to the sofa and grabbed a pillow. Still aiming the shotgun with one hand, he sidled up to the bedroom door.
Threw the pillow into the bedroom.
One two three steps and he was inside the bathroom. He pivoted to his right—
Wright, a grizzled black werewolf, a hulking mass of scraggly fur and unnatural muscle and hardened bone, perched atop the sides of a bathtub, snarled at him.
Karim-Galen brought up the shotgun—
Wright pounced, swiping the long weapon away with one hand, the other slashing at Karim-Galen’s throat—
Karim-Galen headbutted him in the muzzle.
Wright’s slashing arm swiped across his forehead. The rest of him collided into Karim-Galen, ramming him against the wall. A werewolf howled, then the other, their voices mixing into a duet of pain and rage. Karim-Galen arched back in, jaws going for—
NO! NO TEETH!
In that moment of hesitation, Wright pinned the shotgun against Karim-Galen’s body and cocked his arm back for a massive punch.
Karim-Galen ducked, swiveling to his right. Wright’s fist blasted into the wall. Marble cracked. Powder billowed. Wright brought his fist back, trying to adjust, but already Karim-Galen was reaching over, prying off Wright’s fingers from the handguard of the Revolution.
Wright rammed his shoulder into Karim-Galen’s chest. The blow sent him reeling, stumbling, backwards into the bedroom. His legs struck something hard, and he fell, automatically curling his spine, landing on something soft. On the bed.
Karim-Galen shot his arms up, placing the long gun between him and the werewolf. Wright clutched the weapon in both claws, landing full force on Karim-Galen. The bed boomed under their weight. Snarling, growling, Wright snapped and bit, going for the throat. Karim-Galen wrenched his weapon one way, then the other, pressing his head to his chest, trying to throw him off—
Red pain, pure and unadulterated, flooded his eyes.
It was blood. His blood.
Eyes squeezed shut, Karim-Galen bucked and thrashed. Teeth scraped against bone, claws raked against fingers. He couldn’t see, but he could still feel, still sense Wright’s weight, balance, forces, energy, and the world was nothing but energy.
Wright shifted again, rearing back up, his pressure vanishing as he readied for another bite—
Karim-Galen punched into the gap.
Reinforced bone sank into unnatural flesh. A strangled cry issued from a wounded throat. The tension vanished.
Karim-Galen torqued to his right. A heavy weight dragged along with him, striking the head and bed.
Karim-Galen shot back up on his feet, turning towards the threat, shotgun at his hip, desperately wiping his eyes with his free hand, forcing them open—
Wright was on his feet, arm cocked back—
The shot cone caught Wright low in the belly. The sheer kinetic energy of sixteen pellets striking at over a thousand feet per second rippled through his body, shocking his muscles, deadening his nerves, freezing his body, knocking him back a step.
And Karim-Galen shouldered the shotgun and blasted him in the chest.
The buckshot knocked him straight down. Just like that, all the fight bled out of him. His wounds tried to scab and close over, but both werewolves knew it was too late. One more shot, and it’d be over.
Karim-Galen aimed at his head.
Wright glared. Blood dribbled from his mouth.
“What… are you… waiting for?”
Galen urged his host to pull the trigger. Karim hesitated.
“Why?” Karim asked.
Wright worked his jaw, trying to speak. A blood bubble formed. Popped. And legible words came.
“What… do you mean… ‘why’?”
“Why target Galen?”
“War… is coming. New Gods… raising armies. Choose a side… or be destroyed.”
“You chose the Court of Shadows.”
“Shouldn’t we… stick together? We… are… all… wolves.”
Within his mind, the wolf god growled in rage and impatience, demanding him to finish him and feast on the remains. The human wrestled with a hundred, a thousand, a hundred thousand responses, all of forming and dying before they reached his lips. In the end, there was only one thing to say. The only thing he could say.
“We are not the same.”
And then it was over.
Blood, rich with life and iron, filled his nose, mingling with the odor of gunpowder. His mouth watered, his muscles trembled, his belly growled. The threats were all down. Now, surely, he could claim his victory and eat his fill. The weak were meat to the strong, and he was the strongest of all. It was his right by conquest, in accordance with the unchanging law of the universe, as an embodiment of nature red in tooth and claw. All he had to do was—
The wolf god howled in his head.
YOU DENY ME? YOU DENY YOUR GOD?!
I am a man! I cannot do this! Karim replied.
We are wolves! Become who you were meant to be!
No. I cannot, will not, cross the line. Not even for you.
You ceased being a human when you agreed to be my Elect.
I will not give up my humanity.
You are no longer in the STS. You are no longer bound by their rules.
You may be my god. I may be your wolf. But my soul remains mine. I will not, cannot, become like what these men have become.
The human mind was a fragile vessel. It was never meant to hold the power of a god. In the furnace of the Aether, exposed to the full glory of the divine, it burned, melted, reformed into something else. Not everyone survived the process intact.
Those who didn’t became Husks. Empty shells that were once men, their humanity burned away, leaving behind beasts that existed only to feed and to kill.
Sometimes it occurred when the power didn’t take, when an aspiring Elect failed the transformation process. But it was also a gradual process, a slow erosion of sanity and self-control, of the Elect willingly giving himself up to his god in inches, until at last he was no more and only the god remained.
He could not, would not, fall into that state. No matter what.
Your concerns have merit. But the powers I grant you come from my own energy reserves. If we do not feed in this form, we shall both starve. Our powers will weaken and diminish. Surely you have noticed this.
It was true. In the STS, he’d always held himself back from eating the corpses he had created. But afterwards, after a transformation, he found himself ravenous for days after. He thought it was just his body trying to replace lost energy.
You and I are entwined. Your flesh is my flesh, your bones are my bones, your blood is my blood. This is what it means to be an Elect of the gods. Deny me and you deny yourself.
The meat, raw and red, called out to him. There was so much of it here, enough to satisfy even the hungriest wolf, and he needed was—
Confusion blasted through his mind.
Steak? Galen repeated.
When this is over, we’ll have steak. Prime steak, rare and juicy. All the steak you can eat. Or whatever meat you want. Just… not human flesh. Or the flesh of Elect. Not something I won’t—can’t—eat.
A long pause.
Makes for a nice change from the honey, berries and other offerings at the temple, Karim added.
Very well. We shall have steak. But I shall hold you that.
And just like that, the compulsion left him. He was no longer a wolf, just a man in the body of one. He lowered his weapon, breathed, and transformed.
Fur receded. Clothes returned. Bones shrunk, blood cooled, flesh knitted together. Now he was whole and healthy again, as though he’d never been scratched.
Karim stepped away from the remains and continued to clear the apartment, more for peace of mind than anything else.
What blood and skin he’d left on Wright’s claws would soon disintegrate into nothingness.
One more perk of being an Elect: if you left behind biological samples while in monster form, they would vanish when you changed back. But the good outlaw never took chances.
“Objective area secure. All threats neutralized. Proceeding to clean up.”
Karim swiped the phones and devices from the living room table, shoving them into his pockets. Inside the kitchen, he checked the stove and found a large gas cylinder. He disconnected the cylinder and dragged it out.
In the bedroom, he dug around his coat pockets and produced a matchbook and a box of cigarettes. He opened the matchbook and lay it on the bed. He tapped out a cigarette, struck a match and used it to light the coffin nail. He wedged the burning cigarette between a pair of matches, positioning it so the cover would catch the ashes. Then he placed what was left of Wright on the bed.
Back in the kitchen he turned on the gas.
“Deadeye, Lycan. Exfiltrating now.”
“Roger. I hear sirens. Moving out too.”
Karim rushed out into the roof. A symphony of sirens echoed around him. Blue and red lights flashed between skyscrapers. Incoming cop cruisers.
Karim sprinted down the steps.
When he reached the ground floor, an explosion rocked the world.
Windows shuddered. Alarms sounded. Looking back up, he saw tongues of fire reaching for the heavens, shrouded in greasy smoke. By the time the fire engines arrived, there would be no evidence left of his passage.
Nothing but bodies, blood, buckshot, and shattered railgun flechettes.
Cap pulled low over his head, shotgun folded up and hidden under his coat, Karim disappeared into the Babylon night.
Before becoming the alpha wolf, Karim Mustafa was just a rookie out of his depth. Read his story in Babylon Blues here!
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