Factions Chapter 2

Present Day

Alex shoved the rat-looking guy back down on his bar stool, baring her teeth, her eyes glowing in warning. “Touch me again, and you’ll be choking on my fist.” She wasn’t sure what his make-up was, he looked like something between a rat and a opossum. It was obvious he was only a partial shifter, and not even a good-looking one at that. Probably what made it so hard to figure him out.

She sniffed.

And, he stunk. Like, seriously stunk.

Maybe opossum or rat wasn’t quite right. Skunk-hybrid? She sniffed again, a low growl rumbling in her throat. The rat-looking skunk-guy who just tried to man-handle her bottom cowered away, holding up his hands in a placating gesture. “Easy lady, I’m sorry. It won’t happen again, I promise.”

His beady eyes shifted, and she blinked as his face morphed, then morphed back. She held in a snicker. Definitely skunk. And a wimpy one, too. The wimpy ones can’t control their abilities when they’re scared. She gave him a final shove in the chest and let her eyes glow again before she straightened. Her gaze collided with someone across the room, just walking through the doors. Breath hitching, she froze, caught and pinned by a piercing set of dark eyes.

Of its own volition, her gaze wandered over his form, noting the low hanging jeans, the combat boots, the unbuttoned shirt.

And, the abs.

Holy smokes, the abs!

She dragged her eyes back up hastily, and they landed on lips. Full lips that even from across the room, she could tell were twisted in a knowing smirk. She only hoped he didn’t see her eyes glowing at little skunk-guy a few minutes ago. The stranger lifted a well-worn combat boot, moving to climb the stairs to top level where they hold all the cage fights. Her eyes met his again, caught. She made a valiant effort to look away, she really did… but she couldn’t.

Before he finally released her gaze, she felt a flicker of awareness raise the hairs on the nape of her neck, and saw a faint glow flare around his irises. Her eyes widened. Damned if she couldn’t hear… was that a… he was growling at her! The deep sound rumbled in his chest, reaching out from across the room and drawing her gaze down.

Oy, built like a rock.

She licked her lips and gave herself a stern mental shake.

Focus, Alex!

Her stomach tightened of its own volition, and she cursed silently, heat flaring in her cheeks. He inclined his head in her direction with the smallest of smiles, then turned his back, climbing the stairs and moving out of sight. She sagged in flustered relief. If her senses weren’t playing tricks on her, she’d just locked eyes with another full-shifter like herself.

And not just any kind, either.

Jaguar.

Like me.

Jags were a breed that happened to be one of the most coveted by the NuGenesis Society. Right alongside wolves, bears, lions, and gorillas, of course. No one said they weren’t a greedy organization. All were known for producing primarily full-shifters, although the occasional partial-shifter sometimes came on the scene.

Full-shifters were coveted because their abilities gave them supernatural speed and strength, plus instincts and a cunning that far surpassed that of any partial-shifter anomaly out there. Any time a full-shifter was discovered, NuGen moved in, trying to recruit them. Most Jags had already joined the ranks. She was one of the few still on the outside, refusing to kow-tow to NuGen elite.

Alex shot skunk-guy another dirty look, and headed back behind the scarred, grubby-looking bar to wrap up her shift. She had no interest in being recruited by anyone, let alone an organization that took terrorizing, greed, and bullying to whole new levels, built on the backs of people too weak to fight back.

She struggled hard every day to keep her abilities under wraps and not reveal them to the genpop, so she—and more importantly her baby brother—would stay off NuGen’s radar. The only people that knew she was Jag and full-shifter were Catalina and Jericho.

Jericho, because he’s her baby brother and just like her, and Catalina, because she’s Jag and full-shifter too. She was also her closest friend and confidante since the horror they’d all dubbed the “The Purge.” What else could you call it, when 70% of the world’s population was killed by some magically super-charged bio-agent, and the other 30% were left—changed?

Somehow, “Bio-Magic Apocalypse,” didn’t have quite the same ring to it. They could only assume the attacks were for a reason and their best guess was that whoever was behind it wanted to purge all whose DNA didn’t respond to the bio-magic, so that only the strongest, and ergo the most useful, were left behind. The likely suspect behind the mass murder was the NuGenesis Society, but she had yet to find proof.

“Not for lack of trying,” she muttered under her breath.

Needless to say, Alex lost her parents to the bio-magic bacterium, and Catalina lost her entire family. But when she and Cat met, they bonded immediately, though Alex didn’t fully understand how it all worked at the time.

She’d been struggling to get a handle on her newfound abilities, so between that, striving not to have a freak-out every five minutes, and trying to keep Jericho safe as he went through his own transition, she’d been in a pretty unstable state. Eventually, she realized she’d bonded to Cat so quickly because full-shifters can sense when they are in the presence of their own kind. The minute she met Catalina, she knew they were the same.

Call it instinct or intuition.

Whatever it was, hers had become killer since undergoing the transition. She found out just how killer when her brother got cornered by some jerk unable to control his baser animal inclinations, shortly after the Purge. Jericho was only 12 at the time, and some guy of the canine persuasion tried to shake him down and steal the scraps we managed to scavenge for food.

All Alex knew was that everything was scarce, and the guy was threatening her baby brother. She reacted, without thought, and purely by instinct. And zero self-control. She knew then that if she ever let go of the thread of humanity she sensed was still inside her, she could lose herself completely. She’d worked to keep a tight rein on her abilities ever since, and she’d trained Jericho to do the same.

Other than Cat and Jericho, only select members of the Underground were aware of her secret, and only on a need-to-know basis. Her skills and abilities were very useful to the Underground’s cause, so she tried to lend a hand whenever she could. After all, they shared a common goal. Dig up NuGen dirt and expose them for the evil scourge they were.

If only we could find any.

Alex glanced up when Catalina came down from the top floor. Her friend whistled and winked.

“Hey, d’you see that one guy come in? Man, talk about tall, dark, and dangerous.” She gave a little meow and crossed her eyes at Alex, tossing her mane of red hair over her shoulder as she balanced a tray in her hand. She maneuvered the last step to the floor gracefully, and set the tray down on the bar to load up more drinks waiting to be delivered to the thirsty and rowdy crowd of fight enthusiasts.

Alex shook her head and laughed as she wiped a damp rag along the top of the bar. It was battered and covered with some kind of pressed metal along the top. There were chips in parts of it, and jagged grooves etched so deep in places you could see the wood beneath. Evidence of the lack of care it’s seen since the Purge. There were lots of places like this bar in town. Banged up, water-logged, some with structural damage. Certain areas were more dilapidated than others, but for the most part, many of the buildings were still usable after a good scrub down.

It became a free-for-all after the Purge, like the Wild West all over again. People staking claim to certain areas and fighting each other for territory. Especially those who banded together with their own kind to form factions. Those that joined a faction were better off than loners like Alex. Strength in numbers and all that. But Alex preferred keeping to herself, even if it was harder and more dangerous. She wanted to keep her little brother as far away from all the faction drama as she could.

Most of the buildings and structures were speckled with areas coated in a black soot-like substance. It was a by-product the magical bacterium left behind that seemed to appear wherever the water dried. The worst of the zones, those structures that never fully dried out and remained damp, were avoided by everyone. Walls and buildings in those areas glimmered with green glow, like the bacterium might still be alive.

Alex was pretty sure it wasn’t, so she didn’t worry about it much. Besides, they’d already been infected. She doubted touching it again could make anything worse. Even so, she tried to avoid areas with even a hint of glow, just to be safe. She especially avoided the few stagnant lakes and ponds scattered on the outskirts of town. They all glowed with speckles of green. And when the fog rolled in, it seemed to color the air, hanging over the water like a thick green cloud. It reminded her too much of the day the Purge happened, so she steered clear of all zones with standing water.

Thankfully, the city’s filtration systems remained mostly intact after the Purge, and some of the more industrious members of the factions got the majority of them repaired and working again, along with most of the power grids. It allowed fresh water to be pumped through the main areas of the city at least, until they could get it repaired further out.

Unfortunately, for people like me that chose to live on the outskirts, that meant filling containers and lugging them home to have water on hand, at least for the time being. Alex also used a trough outside their little cabin to collect rainwater. They used the rainwater mostly to bathe, and occasionally for drinking or cooking. It wasn’t ideal, but she supposed it could be worse.

Catalina interrupted her musings, saying, “Earth to Alex, Earth to Alex. Anybody home?”

Alex blinked like an owl, startled out of her mental reverie. She gave the bar one final wipe and shot an apologetic smile at Cat.

“Sorry, guess I was zoning out a bit. I’m pretty much done here, how much longer for you?”

Cat hoisted up the tray now packed with drinks, and tossed a reply over her shoulder as she moved toward the stairs again.

“Give me about 15 minutes. Just gotta drop this last round off, and then I’m done for the night.”

Alex glanced at the clock. That gave her some time to get changed before they headed upstairs to watch the fight. Her lips quirked as she glanced down at her standard mode of dress. Tattered, super comfy jeans that fit her like a glove. Basic black and gray tank top. Combat boots. She had no problem going dressed as she was, but she knew Cat would have a conniption. Her friend might have survived the apocalypse, but no way in hell would she survive a night out without the proper attire, or be seen with anyone without the proper attire. Alex rolled her eyes. Time to get gussied up.

***

Alex rushed to get ready before Cat finished her shift. She was just putting on the finishing touches when her friend sashayed into the gal’s room and stood back to give her a critical once over. Alex put her lip gloss back into her bag, and straightened, obligingly doing a small turn for Cat’s inspection, showing off the fitted black leather pants paired with the purple flowing top she’d compromised on enough to wear.

When it came to clothes, she was definitely a minimalist, and preferred function over fashion. Besides, they lived in a freakin’ post-apocalyptic world, it’s not like they had the fashion police breathing down their necks. Although she was convinced if there were such a job open, or such a job were to open in the future, Cat would excel at it.

Cat pursed her lips, cocking her head to one side. Alex stuck out a foot to showcase her much nicer (but still totally functional) combat boots, and wiggled an arm so that the silver bangles she wore jangled together. No need to tell her friend about the tiny dagger she had strapped to her forearm beneath the flowing sleeve. Even with her abilities, a girl couldn’t be too careful. She lifted a brow and gave Cat a look. “Well? Do I pass?”

Cat pretended to ponder for a minute longer, then grinned. “I supposed that’ll do.” She stuck out her tongue and turned to pull her own outfit out of her bag. She began to strip down and change, and Alex made a face at her back.

“I saw that.”

Alex rolled her eyes. Witch. She leaned against the counter as she waited for her friend to finish changing. “Who do you think that guy was that came in earlier?”

Cat hopped around on one foot as she changed out her shoes, before stepping up to the mirror to touch up her makeup. “I don’t have a clue, but man, he was smokin’. I didn’t see him upstairs at all, so I’m not sure where he disappeared to. Maybe we’ll see him at the fight.”

She gave Alex a suggestive look, and Alex just shook her head. Cat was way more free-spirited than Alex, especially since the Purge and the changes to our DNA. Not that there weren’t times Alex didn’t succumb to some of her baser urges. Thankfully, it didn’t happen too often. Most of the time if she gave in to them, she was left feeling kind of yuck, so she didn’t give in to them often. Rarely were the men worth it. Although she had to admit, there was something about the stranger from earlier that called to her. She could feel the feline inside of her sit up and take notice when he growled from across the room.

Cat zipped up her bag and stowed her stuff in one of the lockers for employees. Alex did the same.

“Ready?” Her friend’s eyes sparkled, and Alex smiled. She played Cat’s wing-woman more because she enjoyed seeing her friend have fun than anything else. They’d already both seen some of the worst life had to offer, so Alex felt like it was important to take advantage of moments of joy when and where they could. They just didn’t know what the future might hold. And of course, Cat would drag her out by her hair if she resisted.

“Ready. But I’m so not buying this round. Your turn.”

Cat only smirked and flounced out of the room. Alex heard, “Deal!” float back from over her friend’s shoulder. She smiled again and trailed behind her, letting the gal’s room door swing shut.

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By C.B. Stone

C.B. Stone is author of the Unbelief trilogy, the Absence of Song trilogy, and more trilogy-like works. She also occasionally indulges in sushi and chocolate. OK, perhaps occasionally isn't the right word. Often? Every opportunity presented? ::ditches 3rd person voice:: Drat... OK, my name is C.B. Stone and I am a choc-o-holic and sushi addict. Feel better now? You know you're with me.

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