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a world without wolves

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Mira
 Mira
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It was years before he could breathe inside the city walls, truly draw the rank oxygen into his lungs and not feel the clawing panic that accompanied its stink. Before, every labored inhale screamed that he would asphyxiate; drown; die like one of society's forgotten mongrel dogs in the street.

But his nose lost its sensitivity to it after a while. His lungs adapted. His senses dulled, until he was as deaf, blind, dumb as any runt born to a long-perished litter. He didn't spend much time outside the city, not anymore, to know if the deadening was permanent. He feared that it was. Fear was its own stink, and a permanent perfume when it was his own.

He knew that he was no longer a wolf. But he wasn't human, either. He was something chimeric in between, a nightmare of self-preservation and unfulfilled instinct. His loyalties were jumbled, if they existed at all. Now, he gazed dully around himself at the bar, at this kennel of humanity: at the one-armed barkeep, professionally removed but constant in his temperament and in the quality of the information he dispensed; at the discordant pianist too far-gone on cheap scotch and soda to differentiate the white keys from the black; at the slender woman in the skin-tight red dress, her presence familiar enough that he sometimes allowed her to sidle close, but never enough to touch; and she never tried, not anymore.

"You picking up what I'm laying down here, Gray?"

The drink before him glimmered undrunk and diluted in its glass, and it wept down its sides. Always bourbon. The smoke musk reminded him of wood-fire he had once known on the mountain, back when hunters' encampments had served as a reminder of encroaching humanity and not a nostalgic lapse. "Laying down." Spoken in a gruff echo that might have come from a world away. It did come from another world, one they had both shared, once, though the man sitting beside him had no way of knowing it. "Aren't you getting tired of laying down?" He had an image of the man beside him, Saul, on his back with his belly exposed. It was absurd to imagine the ritual, but maybe not wide off its mark.

"We've gone after too many of their shipments too fast," Saul simulated his best growl back at Gray. "And the trains ain't running like they used to."

"All the more reason to hit them now," Gray responded. The woman in the red dress was sitting too close; under the bar, he shifted his leg away.

"Jesus, will you use your head for one fucking second?" Saul erupted. "The only lines left running now are the Nobles' trains! And after that string of stunts we pulled last week—the casualties—you think they're not coming armed to the teeth?" Saul bared his, an expression Gray had to keep himself from returning; the corner seam of his lip pulled and released vaguely like a muscle twitch.

"Take it easy, Saul." Another of their gang returned from the poorly-landscaped pool table. His furtive eyes danced nervously toward the door.

"Tomorrow," Gray said. A hush settled over the bar, the same hush that always followed any proclamation the uncanny man made. He pushed off and rose. The bartender skimmed his drink and credits, nonplussed by the standoff, as if he was descended from a long line of tenders that could be traced all the way back to the operative days of saloons. At the piano, the pianist was doubled-over inventing new chords with his forehead.

"I know what we are. I know the choices I've made." Saul's eyes gleamed with sudden fever. "But I can live with that. And I intend to live with it. You're suicidal, Gray, and you want to pull the rest of us down with you. Well, not me. Men like me tough it out to see tomorrow. Things are going to turn around any day now—and when they do, I intend to find my place in them."

Saul left before Gray did.

"Never heard the old asshole talk like that before," Cueball remarked. "Never heard the optimism. Think it's the election making him plan ahead for a change?" It was a half-hearted question, barely deserving of any inquiring punctuation. He was already sizing up his next opponent from across a green felt expanse.

"Buy a girl a drink, bright eyes?" the woman in red fluted at him. The color of her dress made her brave again in her approach. Gray took his shoulder out from underneath her hovering hand, turned up his collar, and pushed out the door.

 

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Outside the bar he found himself in cold daylight. Freeze City, the uninspired name of a last-standing civilization that had lost all innovation and hope, choked to its caving steel teeth with pollutants and people. The Forgotten Coast, a frozen waste outside its walls, the perfect subversion of this scene: flat and barren, windswept and snow-laden. Equally inhospitable to life. It was just taking the humanity sheltered here a while longer to see the graveyard for the stones.

He was tall among the throng. There was no tempering the illusion, no controlling it: he was what he was and could not change it any more than he could change his true genus. He stood out as he stepped off the curb into the street, but his assimilation went virtually undetected; a testament to the bland inattention of those around him. They kept their heads down, their shoulders hunched, expressions melting like malformed clay back into unsculpted and purposeless raw material.

She was also there on the street.           

Gray had seen the girl before. He had smelled her before. Even in this claustrophobic, fast-expiring metropolis that exhausted his every sense—that destroyed everything that made being alive worth living, and not just surviving—he knew her.

He didn't want to know her.

She passed down this street often with her dog. He had never seen her keep company with anyone else. Gray watched her, always at a distance. Their eyes never met, or if they had, she wouldn't know it: he partitioned his gaze behind tinted sunglasses, and never stayed long enough for a double-take. He was always just there and gone.

Today was different. Today, the girl was screaming.

They were taking her dog. The creature was in the process of being forcibly requisitioned by one of the local gangs and probably destined for a fight. Judging by its lack of breeding and dopey, fearful expression, it was likely to perish in the ring between the jaws of some more vicious beast, if it even made it that far. There were plenty of dogs humanity expended to train a taste for blood-letting in the others.

"Leave him alone! Stop it! No!" This last ejaculation a desperate shriek, barely a pronounced word, but recognizable between species as a cry for help. It made his flesh crawl to hear. A pair of burly arms roped the girl around the waist and wrenched her away from the squealing dog; she kicked out at the air, making her whole body an ineffectual weapon.

Gray was half turned away already. He could keep turning. The apathetic trajectory was familiar, and plenty of others had taken it already. From behind dark lenses, out the corner of his eye, he saw a flash of small blunted teeth, and heard the dismayed grunt of the leader in the aftermath of the girl's bite. A thick fist raised itself in the air to bludgeon.

To outside eyes, Gray's fingers closed over the man's wrist in its downswing. To outside eyes, he must have had a knife secreted, because his grip alone couldn't puncture skin the way it did now. The man howled and pulled back, doubled over, and clutched his arm; his grip made the bright red rivulets of blood flow faster, as did the fearful pounding of his heart. The man's brain didn't know a predator, but his pulse did. Gray could hear his terror like the galloping of extinct hooves through a ghost-swept wood and despised him all the more for it.

"Get up." The guttural order raised every hair in the vicinity, and when the man didn't heed, Gray snagged him by the nape and hauled him to his feet. "I said get the hell up."

The other men of the pack converged, and seemed ready to lend their numbers to a fight, until the specimen suspended in his grip blanched suddenly. The man had caught the flash of one burning yellow eye over the rim of Gray's flat black Wayfarers. His illusion was always weakest in direct sunlight. When the others saw their leader's expression, they slowed in their haste to bring themselves to slaughter.

Gray flung the man away from him. The other stumbled his way into a run; his ragtag associates followed, shooting perplexed glances back as they went. Once they had dispersed, the next inevitable encounter loomed. In the overcrowded city they were suddenly alone. The girl was there. The dog cringed away from him, cowering behind her legs, also there despite its best efforts.

Almost self-consciously, Gray shifted his hands back into his pockets.


   
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(@azumi)
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How long had it been since man had appeared to be in control of the land? Years, decades, centuries? No one remembered what life was like without the frozen wasteland that they now called home. No one remembered what it was like to look out at the horizon and see miles of green grassy fields and how it felt to enjoy clean, fresh air and bask in the cool breeze that accompanied a jot summer's day.

It was unclear how it all started but many people believed it was something called global warming. Ironic really, that something that was names after heat would result in the world becoming a frozen wasteland. Summer's became hotter and brutal, winters colder and harsher and as the years went on, longer and longer until eventually, the world became a globe of ice.

Man fought it against it at first but mother nature was not someone who could be beaten. Mankind was pushed back, slowly beaten until only a few strongholds remained.

It was not easy to adapt, especially for those that were used to space and freedom. Now they felt contained, trapped like animals. Fights broke out, disease spread like wildfire but eventually, life appeared to balance itself out. Crime and the darker side of life still existed of course, the rich seemed to be surviving better than the poor but over all, it seemed to work. More or less.

Aspen had grown up in what most people would class as one of the more better off areas of the city. She had a lovely home and parents who adored her. To her, life could not have seemed more perfect.

That was until her parents were murdered. Cut down by some lowlife who had been after his next fix. They were slaughtered for their money and left to bleed out like animals.

For months after that horrific day, Aspen had withdrawn into herself, shunning other people in favour of a life of solitude. She didn't event leave the apartment that her parents had once owned, sitting by the window and watching the world go by.

Eventually, the day came when she ventured outside, looking to find something that would catch her interest, something that would make her feel again. Maybe it was luck or fate but as she was walking along the main road, seemingly invisible to their around her, a help caught her attention. It was loud enough to stop her in her tracks and look around.

There it was again, a yelping, crying noise that seemed to reach out and pull directly at her heart. It was coming from a nearby alleyway, one filled with rubbish. She was halfway down there before she froze, realising that she could potentially be putting herself in danger. In fact, she was on the verge of turning around when whatever it was yelped again, making her jump.

There, mo more in front of her, was a filthy little bundle of fur. Kneeling down to look closer, Aspen saw it was a puppy. A tiny puppy looking up at her with the most pitiful expression on it's face. It looked up at her, one green eye and one blue, pleading for help.

It was instinctual for Aspen to lean forward and scoop the little bundle into her arms, her own blue and green eyes watering. She hugged the little one close to her chest and hurried out of the alleyway, rushing back to her home where she cleaned up the little pup and decided that it would become her reason to keep going again.

Time passed and the little pup, now named Sheba, gave Aspen meaning again. She walked her every day, taking the same route at the same time. She even started speaking to the people that commented on her new addition. Nothing major, just a simple greeting here and there but still, it was progress.

Then it happened, something that she had been dreading in the back of her mind since she had found Sheba. She was happily walking him along her usual route, watching him prance along as he usually did when he stopped suddenly, a nervous whine coming from him up to find herself surrounded by men. Men that did not look particularly friendly for that matter. She automatically took a step back but found herself bumping into something solid. Something solid that wrapped his arms around her while someone else tried to yank Sheba's lead out of her hand.

"Leave him alone! Stop it! No!" she screamed, struggling against the arms that held her, watching as her precious dog was being pulled away from her. She could lead them take him. They had both lost their parents and Aspen was going to try her hardest to make sure they didn't lose each other.

One of the men reached his hand out to grab her face but before he could, she lashed out, pulling her lips back and biting down hard. At first he looked shocked and then furious, raising his hand to strike her. She looked at him defiantly, refusing to back down and waiting for the blow. It never came. In the time it took her to blink, a hand had seemingly appeared out of nowhere and had wrapped itself around the descending fist.

The howl that came out of her asailers mouth was one of pain and she wondered what in the world her would be saviour had in his hand. As he pulled back, she looked up at the person who was helping her, finding him tall and lean but obviously well built. There was sunglasses covering his eyes but Aspen felt as though she recognised him, like she had seen him somewhere before but just couldn't place where.

She was distracted from him by Sheba once again whimpering and trying to get to her. Then the man spoke and every hair on her body seemed to rise, telling her that this person, the one that was helping her, was not someone to be messed with. 

All of a sudden, the crowd dispersed, running away from this single person who had this air of someone dominant. At that time, she didn't really notice, caring only that Sheba was free and now cowering behind her legs. She reached down and picked him up, hugging him to her as though afraid someone was going to try and take him again.

She turned to look at her saviour who was standing there looking rather awkward with his hands in his pockets and could once again feel the air of dominance that seemed to pour out of him. Her voice shook as she spoke, along with the rest of her body as the adrenalin made it's way out of her system. "Thank you. Thank you so much for your help."


   
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Mira
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Twin pairs of incongruent eyes stared at him. His sunglasses had become a necessity—an accessory to divert unwanted attention during the day—but they were yet another handicap on his senses. He recognized the eyes that considered him were heterochromatic, one blue and one green, but was prevented from registering any further detail. Was one eye green like his memory of the forest, or like spring ice? Was the other lighter or darker, or was it a trick of the glare off the abandoned factory windows behind him? None of this information was accessible.

The dog squirmed in her arms. Non-humans knew what he truly was. Still, this one wasn't yet ready to escape the clear and present danger of his presence without its master. Gray stared at the dog for a long moment, almost unable to comprehend what he was looking by comparison. To be so reduced that you would seek protection in—and imagine yourself protecting in turn—a human, was a concept he could scarcely entertain.

But there was that moment, barely removed enough from the present to be a memory, that he had intervened between her and harm. Why? The streets reverberated with the pain of others daily, and the back alleys were stained copper with their blood. It was a wilderness unlike any he had ever known, boundlessly numbered with torturers and enterprisers, the have-nows eternally battling back the have-soons. What was one more casualty in this perverse circle of survival?

"You're better off leaving your dog at home," he warned without inflection. "And you're better off not coming around here again." He squared wide shoulders and seemed about to depart without a further word, but the street was a sudden hub of renewed activity. A procession of sleek black cars, and even blacker-clad men astride purring motorcycles, turned onto the block. Gray stepped back up onto the curb, joining the congestion of bodies alongside the girl as the motorcade slithered toward them like a adder. A man's face, halfway eclipsed by a tinted window in one of the middle vehicles, slid more into focus as his window receded. He looked vaguely familiar to Gray, whose occasional recognition of human countenances—as opposed to their smell—always left him feeling unsettled. He couldn't place where he had seen the man's face before. Printed on a poster? Broadcast on television?

The man's smile was too perfect: fluorescent-white, politically expedient. He engaged it now like he engaged his window. A few called to the man, and he waved in return. Gray didn't catch the name. He was distracted by the rumble and smell of hot engines, and with trying to avoid brushing up against the girl's dog, which seemed about to hit its limit with the day's terrors and forgo fealty to its human companion in exchange for immediate escape.


   
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(@azumi)
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Aspen couldn't quite believe that someone had come to help her. She had grown up in this city, this last remaining stronghold of man and she knew how selfish people had become. She had witnessed it first hand when no one had helped her parents, had seen it with people in the streets as she walked her dog. Poor people were begging on the streets but they may as well have been invisible. She helped where she could, providing food and blankets but it never seemed like enough.

 

There was something about the man who had helped her that struck a chord deep within her. He was dangerous, someone she should avoid but at the same time there was a kind of pull about him that made her feel safe as though she subconsciously knew he wouldn't hurt her. He had hurt people before, that much was obvious but not her. 

 

She could of sworn that she had caught a glimpse of the eyes that he seemed so intent on keeping hidden behind those sunglasses of his. It had sent a shiver down as her spine, goosebumps raising on her skin when she heard his voice. A voice that seemed to resonate deep within her.

 

Sheba continued to struggle in her arms and she tightened her grip around the pup, trying to make her feel safe and secure, unaware that one of the reasons for the canines agitation was the very person who had saved her from a life of dog fighting. Aspen had no idea that there were people still around that took part in the barbaric act of dog fighting. She had read about it in books but didn't think it still existed.

 

She nodded at the man's words, slowing bending forward to put Sheba on the ground, exhaling loudly as she did so. "I will, thank you again. Is there anything I can do to thank you?" He didn't seem the sort to accept the offer but she would of felt rude not to. After all, he had not only saved her dogs life but hers as well. 

 

Before he could reply, the street that had previously contained just the two of them suddenly became very busy. Black cars and motorbikes broke the somewhat awkward silence that was between them. A blackened window on one of the cars came down slightly to reveal a face that was even more familiar to her. A news broadcaster of some kind, from a popular news programme. He was handsome, or some people thought so but to Aspen he seemed arrogant, too full of himself and she didn't like him one bit.

 

She straightened, her expression that was until recently full of fear and panic became one of peace. She had no desire to be part of an article or news story whatsoever. All she wanted to do right now was go home and relax, possibly with a strong drink to help calm her nerves which were positively shot. The hand holding Sheba's lead trembled slightly as she took a step forward, staring straight ahead with no intention of providing the newscaster with the attention he obviously wanted 


   
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