Mixed Signals, Part One

Mixed Signals

Part One

Somewhere in Oregon, three years after the world ended…


No pack. Those who were part of his pack – Spider Woman, Changing Woman, Frog, Blue Heron… even Raven – they were all gone, the Great Den abandoned but for the wild that had overtaken all that was. He was being sneaky as he explored the Great Den, seeking tracks or other signs of his pack, his pads lightly touching the ground with the barest of noises. The writhing emptiness would not notice him as long as he stayed quiet, to the shadows. He was certain of it. At least until it found him anyway. It would have eaten his tail if it hadn’t been tucked between his legs while he fled. But he made it out, and he was whole.

Now where was he supposed to go?

The Others were gone too. These were not of his pack, though, so he did not mind their absence too terribly much, except for some disappointment. Why had he gone to visit them again? Hungry. He was hungry for their sweet foods and nectars. No, that wasn’t it. Mates? Probably. No, that wasn’t it either. A quiet place to nap? Most definitely not. Those places were hardly ever quiet. Why would he go there first, then, after being freed from his cage? Right, because of the ones who put him in there in the first place. He did not like being stuck as a rabbit. Wait, when was he a rabbit? He was once and always a coyote.

No. He was definitely a rabbit, with soft, tender, tasty flesh. Why was he stuck in a cage then?

What did it matter? He was out now, and those who caged him were as gone as his pack so it wasn’t likely he’d be caged again anytime soon. He was free! They would not cage him, they would not strike him on the nose when he just wanted to smell them, they would not throw things at him when they spotted him digging through their shiny things, they would not shout at him for being where he did not belong…

In fact, no one would.

He was truly alone.

He sat his haunches down and howled his sadness to the skies.


The other pack. The one that freed him from the cage. They weren’t as strong or as capable or as clever as him, sure. Easy pickings. Not very fun at all. But they knew him. They took care of him. They didn’t abandon him when he was still imprisoned.

He probably should’ve thanked the skies for comforting him before he started on his search. Maybe then they wouldn’t have carried his sadness to the nearby nest of apparently very hungry wyverns.

Brendan’s eyes flicked over Lance briefly, his brows furrowed in concentration as he hissed his breath out and in with practiced control. Aida recognized that look, the look of gears turning at high speed, the look of quick assessment and calculation calmly ticking away behind blue-green eyes. Lance may be stronger and bigger than Brendan, but Brendan was smarter than Lance.

Lance swung first.

Brendan ducked, flinging droplets of sweat from his red hair, weaving under Lance’s blow, and tossed his own fist out. His muscles tensed and shifted under his skin, from his biceps to his ribs and across his back, sharpening the shadows of definition whose careful development was finally beginning to pay off. He stepped into the follow-through, sliding back-to-back with Lance, pivoted, and side-stomped the back of Lance’s knee. His calf visibly tensed as his foot flexed, and his leg shot forward with certainty and precision. Lance dropped to one knee, putting Brendan in the prime spot to grab his chin with his right hand and the back of his head with his left to twist.

He let his hands slip, though, past Lance’s head, mimicking the sharp motions of snapping a neck, even adding a little crack! Sound effect for good measure from the edge of his mouth.

Even at this carefully unobtrusive distance, Aida could smell his sweat, mingling with the scent of fresh grass and clovers, making a heady aroma that reminded her of summers past.

Lance laughed.

“Not bad, Slim,” he said.

Brendan smirked, then stepped away as Lance rose. They briefly clapped each others’ hands before Brendan jogged to the bucket to splash his face. Runnels of water dripped unnoticed from his face down his neck, following the contours of his collarbone, down his chest…

“I would very much like my clean underwear now, if you please,” said Carmen.

Aida’s heart skipped a beat and the laundry basket jumped out of her hands. She tried to catch it, but her arms had somehow become stiff and her fingers slightly numb. The freshly cleaned and dried clothes scattered on the ground.

“Shit!” Aida barked, dropping to her hands and knees to recover the rebellious laundry. “Geez, don’t do that to me! I nearly had a heart attack.”

Carmen stooped beside her to help, her bracelets clattering on her arm. Aida had no idea how she managed to find them. Not to mention all her other clothes. And they were always just the right size! Aida had the toughest time finding pants that were long enough without being too big in the waist.

“Excuse me, chica, but I’d like to point out that it’s literally impossible for me to sneak up on you. You can see and hear me coming from, like, 500 feet away.” Carmen plopped a handful of shirts in the basket, her bracelets clicking together once more. “Then again, you seemed pretty engrossed. What exactly were you looking at?”

Aida could feel her cheeks growing hot. “Nothing.”

Immediately she regretted it. Aida could almost feel Carmen’s smirk, despite pointedly avoiding looking at her by trying to busy herself with the fallen clothes. It was a stupidly obvious lie. It was just about as bad as openly admitting the truth – especially to Carmen. She needed a better one.

She sighed and began to backtrack. “Okay, sorry. I was watching the guys practice.”

“Oooh. That explains a lot,” said Carmen. “Forgiven, honey. When I was your age my brain was useless with a boy in the same room as me.” She paused briefly. “Shit, I sound so old. It’s only been four years since then, Carmen. Reunir usted mismo!

Despite herself, Aida felt her blush deepen. “It’s not that. I’m just keeping an eye on Brendan.” That didn’t help matters at all. The traitorous blood in her face heated further. “I mean, Lance has been keeping him really busy these past few months. We haven’t hung out in since then, not really. I only get to talk to him at dinner. And he hasn’t even touched his piano for at least two weeks.” These words were a lot more sincere than Aida was expecting. They certainly ached a lot more than she’d anticipated.

Carmen stopped collecting clothes. “So you feel a little left behind.”

Those words rubbed Aida the wrong way. “No! I mean. That’s not – He wouldn’t… You aren’t… I shouldn’t…”

“Hey, I get it! You miss Brendan. He’s gone off and spent most of his time with someone he used to hate. And he actually seems to be headed in a good direction. Meanwhile, you’re by yourself, feeling lost and maybe a little forgotten. Y’know. Left behind in the dust.”

Aida stopped what she was doing, but she couldn’t bring herself to look directly at Carmen.

“Yeah,” she admitted.

“And that’s totally okay. I ain’t invalidating your feelings or nothin’. But I can tell you that he hasn’t forgotten you. You were the only one who’d put up with him when he was going through his whole little angsty asshole phase. When this intensive training stuff is over, he’ll go right back to hanging out with you and playing the piano.” There was a pause. “Besides, gives you a chance to hang out with the rest of us girls. We really aren’t bad company, you know.”

Aida sighed. “Yeah.” She looked directly at Carmen, who was tossing the last of the clothes in the laundry basket. “You’re pretty good at this.”

Carmen snorted and rose, taking the basket with her. “Please. It was written all over your pretty little face, chica. You ain’t foolin’ no one with those puppy-dog eyes.” A smirk pushed up the corner of her lips as she began to walk away.

Aida opened her mouth to retort, but quickly closed it as the faint sound of frantic yipping and hissing and wingbeats reached her ears. She paused a moment, her body tense as she tried to hone in on it. Whatever it was, it was drawing closer. She’d need to get to higher ground to be able to actually see it. But she didn’t need to see it to identify it…

“You coming?” asked Carmen. Aida didn’t respond as she attempted to extend her senses out farther. A screech of… was that brakes? Hard to tell amidst the cacophony of similar screeches and cries.“Aida?”

“Something’s headed our way,” Aida said. “I’ll alert Brendan and Lance on my way to the lookout point. You go tell everyone else.”

Briefly Carmen paused and examined Aida. “How much time have we got?”

Aida stilled herself once more to consider. The yipping stopped, but the sound of shattered glass punctuated the rest of the noisy activity. “I don’t know… I can’t tell what’s going on. Just be quick.”

Carmen nodded, quickly glanced around, then set the laundry basket down beside one of the many trees that dotted the hill. “Don’t let me forget about this, okay?” Without further ado she turned and started off towards the homestead proper.

Aida headed in the opposite direction. The boys were starting a new round of sparring already.

“Got company,” said Aida sharply.

They stopped immediately. Lance jogged over to the edge of the sparring ring, grabbed his spear and tossed Fragarach to Brendan, who caught it with ease and confidence. Everyone knew the disaster drill by heart now – and even though the air was strung tight, there was a strange kind of comfort in this routine.

Except this time, with a single glance and nod exchanged between Brendan and Lance, the routine was broken. Lance began to jog off to the homestead and Brendan took up pace beside Aida for scouting duty. When did he get taller than her? It was only an inch or two, but it was as noticeable as if he were a whole foot taller. Fragarach seemed almost like an extra limb in Brendan’s hand, the muscles in his forearm flexed. He was still dripping with sweat.

“What?” Brendan asked.

“Huh?” Aida wittily retorted.

His puzzled look became even less certain. “You’re staring at me.”

This was a good opportunity to pick up where they left off. She’d blurt the first retort that came to mind, he’d smirk and retort back, and they’d spar until one of them conceded with laughter.

“You’re shirtless,” Aida blurted.

Well that worked out swimmingly.

“Oh.” Brendan looked down at himself, the act of which tensed his stomach slightly, sharpening the creases between the abs. “Uh. Yeah.”

The sound of blood rushing in her ears nearly drowned out the commotion nearby. Quickly Aida rushed to provide context to her statement. “It’s funny, is all.” That was not any better. “Not funny ha-ha, just funny strange.” Just a few months and already she didn’t know how to talk to him anymore. Instead, it seemed that she was determined to rack up a veritable library of regrets just from today alone. After she died, her heart would break the damn scale and tumble right into Ammit’s mouth. Though, to be honest, that would’ve been preferable to standing there that very moment having just said that.

Brendan laughed. It was a little strained, designed to dispel the awkwardness. “Yeah, I’m pretty white, huh?” He paused. “Actually, I should be bright red by now.” His eyes flicked over her as he sent a wry smile her way. “Bet you would fare better shirtless in the sun.” In one fell swoop, he realized what he said and his smile faded and the blood drained from his face.

Aida violently averted her gaze about the same time Brendan did. Wasn’t there something they should be doing?

Oh. Right.

She pointed down the path onward. “We should… you know…” She paused as she groped for the word. “Scout.”

“Oh. Right.”

The rest of the trek to the west sentry point was spent in awkward silence. Aida tried to concentrate on puzzling out what could possibly be making those noises. Some kind of car… ? But that means—

Her thoughts were overpowered by heavy panting and, “Phew! That… was a close one!”

Aida stopped dead in her tracks. “Coyote?”

Coyote straightened as he climbed the rest of the way up the hill and brushed some stray fur from his very human – and very naked – form.

“Yep! Who were you expecting?” Coyote looked at briefly at her, then over his shoulder, then paused and looked more directly at her, taking her in from head to toe. “Aida? Well, look at you! Clearly the artistic eye of the seasons has fallen on you, and their brushes have stroked you with great care. I can see Autumn’s flourishes in your eyes, Summer’s bold colors on your skin…”

Aida stared at Coyote, all manner of witty retorts smashed from her by the sledgehammer-like force of combined astonishment and unabashedly over-the-top flattery. Brendan stepped forward before the god could continue to expound, bringing the armed side of his body to the forefront, gazing at Coyote steadily.

Coyote broke out into a broad grin. “And if it isn’t Brendan! Wow, you’ve been working out! It really shows. Well, that and I could also smell you from a mile away.”

“What are you doing here, Coyote.” Judging by Brendan’s tone it was less a question and more a demand.

“Just figured it was about time to be heading back home!” Coyote exclaimed, a broad grin spanning his face.

“It’s been three years,” Brendan pointed out flatly.

“What? I missed you guys!” He spread his arms and started forward. “How ’bout a hug?”

Under threat of a nude hug from Coyote, Aida was finally able to gather her wits. “What followed you here?”

Coyote stopped in his tracks, lowered his arms, and looked over his shoulder again. “Oh, nothing you should worry about. A flock of wyverns. Or is that a murder of wyverns? I mean, wyverns aren’t ravens or anything but ‘murder’ strikes me as very appropriate.”

Brendan grabbed Coyote’s shoulder with his free hand, turning him around to look him straight in the eye. “Where are they?”

Coyote shrugged. “Can’t seem to find them. Guess they thought more people would make for a better meal than just me.”

“More people?” repeated Brendan incredulously.

“Don’t worry, they’re in a van. That should protect them. I think. Was it wyverns or drakes that aren’t strong enough to pierce through metal? Hm. Maybe it was neither. Oh, wait! Wyverns aren’t strong enough to carry a car away. That was it.”

Aida pushed past Coyote to get a better vantage point. Sure enough, at the bottom of valley was a large, beige van, its tires spinning rapidly and spitting up dust and debris before catching and jumping forward. Two of the… eight, nine, ten… sixteen wyverns that were circling around it dove and slammed into the side of the van, sending it reeling and tipping over into a ditch.

She felt Brendan’s hand on her shoulder. It was bigger than she remembered, heavier, and possessed of much more strength. Her eyes trailed up the veins that stood out on the back of his hand, to the well-worn leather bracers that hardly fit him anymore, and finally to his face. His eyes were dark, shaded by his furrowed brow as he stared intently at the scene below.

She knew that look.

“Brendan, don’t even think—”

“Sorry, Aida, I have to,” was all he said. His hand lifted and he stepped past her to the edge of the lookout point, making short work of the distance, and began sliding down the valley wall, Fragarach held before him and a plume of dust trailing behind him.

“If it’s any comfort,” Coyote began, his voice almost right by Aida’s ear, “I don’t think I could change his mind either. Bravery is annoyingly stubborn. Well. And idiocy.”

Aida glanced at Coyote, mildly surprised to find him so close. “Tell Angela. She might be able to get here quick enough to help him.”

“And you?”

As Brendan reached the bottom of the valley, Aida started after him. “Gonna see if I can keep that idiot alive.”

The Oregon landscape whizzed by to the rhythm of the crunching and bumps of growth that had fissured and snaked through what was once Highway 66. This time of year the blue sky helped accent the bright green grass that had grown wild and unruly on either side of the road like a child’s hair, complimented by the even-tempered dark green trees with their leaves in tight, neat little bundles which seemed to shimmer a little with each breeze. While the scattered houses had not yet fallen into disrepair, the air surrounding them was so thick with abandonment that it was undeniable that it had been years since they were occupied.

Nothing much had changed since Paige had last driven through here one Spring Break with her roommates.

Well, nothing much in the landscape had changed, at least. Everything else, though…

Instead of driving the cantankerous old Volvo hatchback that lumbered through turns only with gentle coaxing and had a tendency to squeak, Paige was driving what was essentially a Frankenstein’d Dodge tank whose chugging underpinned the constant rumbling and crunching of tires on the wild road. Instead of heading through Klamath Falls to Mount Shasta, the destination was Klamath Falls. And instead of a car full of fellow students of Ashland University, Paige was driving a car full of… kids.

It was odd to think about it that way. These kids were the vanguard of what was once Wilsonville, a satellite city on the southernmost edge of Portland. They were full-on Knights Templar, with unscuffed red-crossed badges worn with pride on their chests. But it was true—even the oldest of them hadn’t been old enough to learn how to drive before the entire world was turned on its head. And yet she’d seen Rashid effortlessly lift an I-beam and carry it around like it was nothing. She’d seen Margaret call forth the sun’s rays to break through a thunderstorm with such intensity that Paige had been blinded. Laverne had fired her crossbow at such an angle that it bounced off two walls and struck a giant bear in the eye, and petite little May had leaped forward a good 50 feet and descended on the bear in a blur of Kung Fu madness, striking twice in rapid succession as Laverne was reloading.

“OOOH!” Laverne reached forward and cranked the volume dial up. After a brief harmonica intro designed to lull the listeners into a false sense of bluegrassity, Paige was bombarded by the heavy thump of bass that pop songs three years ago seemed to favor. The beat was echoed by Laverne tapping against the shaft of the crossbow idly cradled in the crook of her arm.

“Da bigga dey are da harder dey fall!” she shouted at the top of her lungs, and she was shortly thereafter joined by Rashid and Margaret in the rapid-fire lyrics that Paige could barely understand. Something about Miley Cyrus.

Paige rolled her eyes, but allowed herself a little smile. Despite the pounding on her eardrums, she was reminded of her own teenage years. Her music taste was shitty then too—Alanis Morissette, mostly. The thought made her want to laugh. Still, it wouldn’t be long before the song would get on her nerves. If she didn’t do something about it soon, she was going to end up saying or doing something bitchy and ruin everyone’s good mood.

She rolled down her window, then pulled the cigarette from behind her ear and popped it in her mouth. After switching her hands on the steering wheel, she reached into her coat to grab her box of matches.

Laverne turned towards Paige. “Hey, what’re you doing?” she asked, her voice carrying over the music. “You’ll attract monsters with the smell of that deathstick.”

Paige snorted. “And cranking the volume up all the way won’t?”

“Hey, this song is totally worth it,” Margaret stated matter-of-factly, poking her head out next to Paige’s shoulder.

“Tim-BUH!” Rashid added, his raucous voice slightly out of sync with the music.

“So tell you what: let me kill myself the way I want, and I’ll let you kill yourselves the way you want,” Paige retorted. “Deal?”

“She’s got a point.” Finally the quiet one spoke up.

Laverne clicked her tongue. “You’re just sayin’ that because you’d rather listen to Daft Punk.”

“Thank you!” Paige pounded her palms on the steering wheel for emphasis. She offered a companionable glance to the little Asian girl in the rearview mirror. “See, I knew I couldn’t be the only one with good taste.”

May offered her a small, clandestine smile.

“Whatever,” said Laverne, settling back into her seat and readjusting her crossbow. “Just don’t ask me to light it for you.” She pointedly eyeballed the matchbox in Paige’s hand.

Paige grinned out of one side of her mouth. “Of course not. I would never ask you to enable my unhealthy addiction.” She lifted her foot off the gas a little, took her hands off the steering wheel, and flicked the match to life. After briefly correcting the van’s course, she lit her cigarette, waved the match out, and tossed it onto the road. The smoke warmed her lungs and she could already feel her shoulders beginning to relax.

After the song ended and the volume cranked back to a reasonable background-noise level, a hand pressed on the back of Paige’s seat. Rashid pushed his way forward, staring through the windshield. The air rushing by Paige’s window made his curly hair bounce a little.

“So, how much longer until we hit… you know… ?” he asked.

Paige blew smoke out. “Klamath Falls?” There always seemed to be this odd sort of superstition around saying its name. “Another forty minutes or so.”

“How do you think that signal made it out?” asked Margaret.

“What I wanna know is why we didn’t pick up on it until now,” said Laverne, glancing at Margaret over her shoulder.

“I think the Disciples were involved,” Rashid said, his voice low and solemn. “I mean, how else could the others have disappeared? The Hellspawn just aren’t that organized.”

“If that’s true,” began Margaret, “that means something must’ve happened to them, too, or else that signal would’ve never made it out. And if something happened to them without us knowing about it…”

“No unnecessary risks,” said May. Her voice, though quiet, cut decisively through the conversation. “We’re there to find the source of the signal and any intel it provides. Nothing else.”

Now Paige remembered why it wasn’t until recently she thought of them as kids: they knew how to switch to professional at the drop of a hat, and they were eerily well-coordinated.

“Hey, guys, quiet,” hissed Laverne, straightening and looking intently out the window. “I hear something.”

After a moment of expectant silence, Paige looked around at the scenery, searching for any sign of the source of the mysterious noises. Not that she could hear them. And chances were that Laverne would spot it long before she did. But still—

“Ms. Brisette, brakes!” shouted Laverne.

Fur, dashing across the road right in front of the van.

Paige brought both of her hands to the steering wheel, the cigarette falling from between her fingers, and hit the brakes hard. For a heart-pounding moment she couldn’t see the creature that was no doubt inches from the grill. But the car screeched to a halt without the requisite thump! and violent jerking of a collision with fresh roadkill. Rashid was tossed forward and slammed against the radio with a grunt, abruptly cutting off the background music. Laverne’s crossbow clattered on the ground with an accompanying, “Agh!”

After a breath or two in the moments of stillness that followed, Paige asked shakily, “Everyone all right?” For good measure she turned around to scan over each of them.

Before she could get a good look, though, she was violently yanked down by her coat’s lapels. Her newsboy cap flew off her head and plopped on the floor below the seat. Glass shattered, sprinkling all over her, and she heard what sounded like a demonic mix of an eagle’s cry and a lizard’s hiss. It was punched through by a whistle, a wet thud, and a pained screech.

Paige finally got her bearings long enough to look up at the one who had yanked her down. Laverne had recovered her crossbow, and its string was freshly slack. Her brow was furrowed and eyes sharp and alert. Immediately Paige straightened and quickly glanced around, her mind working in tandem with her pounding heartbeat.

Circling the van were several… no, a dozen or so long, sinuous lizard-like creatures, with heads kind of like a Velociraptor’s, batlike wings, wicked-looking hind talons, and tails that terminated in some kind of scorpion-like stinger.

“Wyverns,” Laverne barked to the others.

“Ms. Brisette, drive!” May’s voice was very powerful when she wanted it to be.

Without further ado, Paige seized the steering wheel and stomped the gas. The tires ground against the road and sent the van fishtailing for a brief, heart-stopping moment before they finally bit and launched everyone back in their seats.

And then, with a great thud!, the van jerked violently. The wheel spun, ripping itself from Paige’s hands. She fought to regain control, desperately trying to swerve the van back onto the road. But it was too late. It groaned as it listed to the side and finally tipped, tossing Paige on top of Laverne in a tangle of limbs and pain. By the time the van stilled, Paige couldn’t for the life of her remember which way was up. With a groan, Laverne lifted herself off Paige, rubbing her head.

“You okay?” Laverne asked. Apparently “up” was where the floor was.

Paige offered a grunt she hoped sounded affirmative. Though, judging by the all the different kinds of pains she felt that seemed to blend into one haze of “ouch,” she was not okay.

There was an animalistic cry of what sounded like victory.

“We have to make a stand,” Rashid said, his words quick and breathless.

“Back-to-back,” agreed Margaret.

“Ms. Brisette, we’ll draw them away. You should stay hidden and run once you can,” May said.

Paige wasn’t of a mind to argue.

Laverne took a deep breath and closed her eyes. “Beloved Lord, give us strength.”

“And accept us into Your arms if we should fall,” added May, her quiet voice strengthened with the stillness that could only be born of certainty.

Chills snaked up Paige’s spine.

There was a screech of agony. For a half-instant it almost sounded as if one of the wyverns had been smote from on high, as ridiculous as the thought was. But it was quickly followed by a young man’s voice: “COME ON AND GET ME, YOU PEA-BRAINED FUCKS!”

There was a brief moment of surprised hesitation among the Knights Templar. But it was quickly overcome almost all at once. Rashid kicked the side door off its hinges and at once they spilled out, charging forward. With a groan, Paige climbed into the back and peeked out of the opening.

All she could see was the road and a few pairs of feet, running, sliding, shifting, turning this way and that. Shouts, screeches, cries, the sounds of metal sliding through flesh and the thump of bolt sinking into muscle… it all bombarded Paige’s ears in a chaotic stew of sounds. A wyvern’s body crashed to the ground, slid, and stilled, impeding most of Paige’s vision. Broken from her trance, she began to grope around for some kind of weapon.

Ah, her hat! Quickly she popped that on her head.

There. Sizable shard of glass.

She cut off the sleeve of her coat and quickly wrapped it around the wider end of the shard. Then she returned to the opening, gripped the edges of the doorway, and…

A scream, cut off suddenly.

“LAVERNE! NO!” The words sounded as if they had been torn from Margaret’s throat. It was almost as if these words had slammed Paige right in the stomach and kickstarted her heart into higher gear. Her grip almost slipped from the opening.

A head poked into view. The glass shard seemed to slice forward of its own accord. Paige quickly pulled it back the moment she realized the head was human.

Another kid—no more than 17, judging by the looks of her—leaned back, narrowly avoiding the shard. Short, feathered, sable-black hair covering almond-shaped and -colored eyes gracefully turned up at the outer edges. Long neck, pronounced collarbones, smooth olive skin all over. Her cheeks were flushed a dark, almost violet-like color.

“I’m a friend,” she panted, her palms open before her. She quickly glanced over her shoulder, then turned back to Paige and offered a hand. “Let’s get out of here.”

“You got it,” said Paige, clasping the girl’s hand.

It took a surprising amount of concentration to not lose her footing as she was dragged behind this stranger. Paige glanced at the battle, which was just as chaotic visually as its sounds were. A whirl of scales and teeth, claws and wings, a flash of a sword—who had a sword?—and a blur of fists and feet. They had given it a wide berth.

Another invisible blow struck Paige’s stomach as she saw Rashid, little more than an inert lump face-down on the ground, at least two liters of blood pooled beneath him, soaking his curly hair. Three wyvern bodies lay scattered around him.

“Oh my god,” she breathed.

“Come on!” urged the dark-haired teenager.

There it was. A familiar slow burn of self-righteous indignation. Paige was about to do something she’d probably regret later. If she lived to regret it. She halted, yanking her hand free. The girl whirled on her, surprised.

“We can’t just leave them!” Paige said, motioning to the battlers with her shard-dagger-thing.

“We’re not!” exclaimed the teenager. “Just… follow my lead!”

She started off. Paige glanced at the battle again, then ran after her. They circled around, booking it straight up the nearby hill, scrambling as it got steeper and steeper. Finally, she paused, quickly glanced around, and seemed to brighten as her eyes fell on a nearby boulder.

“You!” she called out, pointing to it. “Roll onto those wyverns over there!” She motioned sharply to the battle below them.

Paige had thought that nothing could surprise her anymore. After seeing impossibly huge natural disasters, mythical creatures, kids doing incredible things… she thought herself inured. And yet her mouth dropped open a little when the boulder obeyed, tilting laboriously forward until finally its momentum carried it the rest of the way down the hill. It bounced off an outcropping, launched, and fell squarely onto two wyverns. She could hear the crunch even from this distance.

“Holy shit,” Paige said.

The girl held up a finger to forestall Paige and stared intently at the battle below. Her brown eyes flashed a little, and the ginger fellow with the sword tore it free from one of the wyverns and gave her a thumbs-up with his free hand.

The girl stooped, grabbed a fist-sized rock, and shoved it in Paige’s hand. “C’mon, let’s try to draw some of them away.”

Paige quickly snapped out of her astonishment and nodded, setting her glass shard on the ground nearby. She winged the rock at one of the beasts, striking it on the neck. It jerked and flapped to regain its bearings.

“UP HERE!” Paige shouted at the top of her lungs. Heat sang up the back of her neck and into her skull. As if she wasn’t already pumped full of adrenaline.

“LOOK, FRESH MEAT!” called the other girl as Paige stooped to grab another rock.

Four wyverns pulled away and began to circle around to head for them. The girl spread her feet apart and tensed, gripping a rock in each hand.

“Can you fight those things?” Paige asked.

“I’m more of a… um… scout,” replied the girl.

“Shit.” Paige grabbed her makeshift weapon.

“Don’t worry, we got reinforcements coming.” She paused. “Stay with me.” She took off again. Paige wasn’t far behind.

After they’d covered a good bit of ground—at least, it felt that way, judging by the breath rasping painfully in her throat and her lungs desperately trying to draw air—the girl glanced over her shoulder, prompting Paige to do the same. She tried to swear but it came out more like a wheeze.

“DIVE!” shouted the teenager.

Paige readily obeyed. As her body slammed into the ground next to the girl, she was sharply reminded of the pain that her adrenaline had pushed aside. A groan forced its way out of her throat. Before she could gather her wits, she heard scrambling beside her and felt hands pulling her up. Numbly, Paige looked up at her compatriot in survival. A cave! And a wyvern, closing in fast. Paige grabbed the teenager’s shirt and yanked her sharply down as she laid flat.

The poor girl’s scream of pain rang along the hills as the wyvern’s claws raked along her back. Still, it was better than being snatched up and flown away.

Quickly, Paige started scrambling towards the cave, grabbing onto the girl’s arm and dragging her along behind.

Before they could reach it, however, one of the wyverns landed before them, dipping its saurian head low to bare its jagged teeth and hiss, sending spittle flying.

So much for that plan.

Paige turned on her heel and started off in the opposite direction.

And then the other two wyverns landed, closing off their exit.

Paige edged around, looking for an opening, but that only prompted one of them to hop to the side and snap at her. She took a step back and brought her glass knife to bear in what she hoped was a threatening manner, and winced as it spurred a fresh stab of pain from her ribs. None of the wyverns seemed impressed. Instead, they closed in, slowly, snapping occasionally to drive their prey closer to each other.

One lurched forward suddenly, opening its mouth wide, breath stinking of death. A fiery arrowhead erupted from the back of its throat, splattering hot blood over Paige and the girl. It slumped forward, collapsing on the ground, revealing the most mythic sight Paige had ever seen.

Standing with each foot placed on a tree branch, perfectly balanced, was a blonde woman with a black feather sticking out from her hair, holding out before her the shaft of what appeared to be some kind of see-through, phantom bow. The other hand was drawn back and splayed open, having just loosed an arrow. She was compactly built, small but with broad shoulders and muscular legs, all of which were wound tight and ready to react instantly. Her face would’ve been youthful, with gentle lines, artfully curled lips, and a charmingly turned-up nose, except it was marred by the harsh angles of couple of faded scars… and those burning eyes, their intensity snapping from the fallen foe to Paige. The shiver that sizzled through Paige took with it much of the strength in her knees.

The other wyverns turned to face her and hissed, hopping closer to Paige and the girl. The blonde brought her fists together and pulled them apart, two arrows materializing between her fingers. They hesitated. Her expression hardened and the arrows caught fire.

Wait, there had been four of those beasts after them. Where was—

The teenager’s voice rang out. “Ange! Behind—!”

From all sides at once, everything erupted into action. Leaves shaking violently behind the blonde. A hiss. A flash of a stinger darting forward towards the teenager. The other wyvern behind them, coiling to spring. A thump and a young man’s grunt. The blonde, turning to face her ambusher. The stinger coming away, coated in the red-headed boy’s blood. Sudden, piercing pain in Paige’s shoulders. Hands instinctively closing over scaly claws. Glass clanging to the ground. Being yanked off her feet and carried aloft.

It took a moment for Paige to regain her wits. The ground was getting farther and farther away. Trying to push through the burning ache that the claws had punched into her shoulders, Paige brought her hand up to stab the claws. Except, she noted, with a ball of dread forming in her stomach, she’d dropped her weapon. Instead, she pried at the iron grip, trying to bite back the fresh waves of pain her motions sparked.

Suddenly, one talon loosened, followed by an agonized shriek. The smell of charred lizard meat filled Paige’s nose. Shortly thereafter, the other talon released her.

Funny: just a minute ago, she was desperate to be freed. Now, as the ground moved toward her at an alarming rate, she was half-hoping the wyvern would snatch her up again.

The wind whipped at her hair and clothing as she fell. If Paige concentrated, she could almost picture her legs crashing against the earth, cracking under sheer force, the bone splintering, pulverizing all manner of tissues… Blackness closed around her vision.

And then the blonde somehow met her mid-fall, a couple hundred yards from the ground, arms wrapping tightly around her. Mercifully the pain that the embrace sparked was dull, as if it was somewhere in the back of Paige’s mind.

“Gotcha!” the blonde said, the wind carrying most of her voice away.

Paige was not a fainter. She was not the frail sort who swooned and passed out at the sight of blood. She’d been an EMT when the world began to end, for god’s sake! She was just in a lot of pain and had only moments ago stared one death after the other right in the face.

But she couldn’t help but feel like she was finally safe, having been caught by this mysterious heroine. Despite herself, her body relaxed quicker than if she’d smoked a cigarette, which only seemed to help speed her blackout.

Mixed Signals, Part One

God-Touched Nut_Meg