The Changed -- Chapter 15 -- by Dee Caples

A Helluva Day

Pericles made one more inspection of  their preparations. A crude ladder of sorts had been fashioned and they put a cat-man in the roof joists of the first house Dancy and his men would face. They’d formed a sort of lid that was hinged with leather he could raise after springing his mannequin decoy.

Other mannequins were waiting to be deployed as a means to get the enemy to waste ammunition on non-living targets and they tested them one more time. They wouldn’t be the only element of surprise. He knew a first glimpse of The Changed would cause delayed reaction. It always did.

Everyone gave up some article of clothing to put on the mannequins. Naked ones would be less believable. Some of the doggish and cattish were going about in nothing but their fur in order to be more intimidating. Not all of them were dog- or cat-men. Many of the females had elected to fight, even if they had children among those stashed away. Te was one of them. She and Danna had argued about this but Te had pointed out that Danna herself was fighting, so she would, also. Haja had agreed to protect her offspring and, if necessary, continue to raise them afterward.

Manda was reluctant to hide but Kellus outright refused. “I organized the break-out from the lab and I’ll not hide from this fight, either!” he bellowed, his gray fur standing on end. Consummate canine politician, he waved around at his family. “These are all mine and I’ll gladly die to protect them.”

Aces relieved the moment by slapping him on the shoulder. “You probably will, old dog.”

Kellus thrust up one of his spears and roared something he’d no doubt heard from one of the humans at the lab. “Fuckin’ A!” That caused the younger warriors to brandish their own weapons and shout along with him, every one of them vocalizing their willingness to die in the place of any other. Pericles sighed and shook his head over the stubbornness of their aged leader. It wasn’t his decision to make.

The vehicles were out of sight with the food and water stores. The last task was to remove evidence that anyone was still here. All those too young to fight lay nestled with a parent beneath houses that had no decoys or defensive perimeter. The over-excited children had been instructed with the importance of remaining quiet. Pericles knew their animal DNA would ensure their natural survival instincts.

The ones who weren’t already hidden away shared a meal and filled their canteens. Pericles made sure they had as many spears as possible and checked their knives. Finally, there was nothing to do but put Danna in place. They went to the building she’d first mentioned as a good firing spot and he leaned the ladder, quickly constructed of scrap lumber and rope and vines against the side.

For a long minute she stared into his eyes then threw her arms around his neck, jumped up and kissed him on the cheek. “Good luck,” she said softly and scrambled up the ladder. He next used the ladder himself to climb atop a nearby house and watched as she checked the weapons and crouched, peeking over now and then to see if the enemy was on their way.

Pericles slung the ladder as far away as he could. It looked like one more piece of useless junk and he hoped that’s all anyone else would think it was. He was the tallest and had chosen the best house to keep watch from. Everyone knew the vocal signal for approach. There was nothing to do now but wait. He wasn’t even aware of his hand coming up to touch the place her lips had.

It was customary for a general to make a rousing speech before battle to encourage his warriors. He hadn’t done that. All the encouragement they needed was hiding under those houses. What little drilling they’d done would have to suffice. For years they’d honed their skill by hunting for food. Snakes, birds and lizards were smaller than men and harder to hit. He had no doubt of their ability to bring down what they aimed at.

These men had no doubt hunted their food, too, but they were at a disadvantage in that they had nothing to protect but their own lives. Their sole incentive was the word of a man and either their respect or fear of him. In Pericles opinion, that wasn’t enough. To fight and win, people needed something to fight for. The Changed had that. They had each other. He had studied people for most of his life and he sensed that those he’d fight today were more like an unruly pack of marauders and not a disciplined, cohesive unit.

Out of the stillness came the sound of motors. “Come on, then. We’re ready for you.” He growled low in his throat and gave the piercing, pre-arranged signal.

He rolled off the roof, tucked and rolled again. Into the house he ran, taking cover in the corner of the front room next to a window. He kicked it and the framing away and leaned his head against the wall. Breathe in. Breathe out. Listen for them. Yes, they’re almost here. Don’t think about the others. Don’t worry about Danna. Everyone has their part to play and so do I.

He hadn’t fought like this before. The previous engagements had been spur of the moment violence, protecting his own life or another. This was taking the fight to them, deliberate provocation. He was ready. He had to be. His fingers smoothed along the wooden shaft of his spear, twirled the small, deadly blade toward the floor and found the correct holding position.

Breathe in. Steady. Breathe out. Steady. You know what to do. Choose your moment. The right one.

He imagined the street fighter before him, knife in hand, grin on his face. That man had deserved death, had even encouraged it. These would, too. Pericles thought of how Danna would rather die here than be taken to face a slow, cruel end to her young life. What were these men that they would hunt them down? His jaw tightened. His teeth ground. They were no one. Men with guns and minds full of hate and killing. He might die here today but he wouldn’t die alone. More than one was going with him.

And, now, they were here. Engines cut off. Doors slammed and voices spoke in the still air, close enough to make out individual words. One man ordered others to spread out and search. He assumed this was Dancy. A shot rang out then a thump sounded as Yurel raised his roof lid. Pericles heard the whistling of a spear and the death grunt of a dying man. Another whistle, another shot. Before the shooting had time to get in full swing, Pericles sprang into the window opening and threw two spears. They found their mark and the men fell, kicking in death throes.

Just in time, he dove for the floor. Lead flew into the side of the building and window into the opposite wall. Percussions hit his eardrums and splinters flicked into his skin. He kept his head down and slithered to the other side of the house and out of the space where the door hung limp by one hinge. The pace of his breathing matched the forceful beats of his heart and he spared a couple of seconds to lie on the ground and watch beneath the raised floor of the house as a pair of feet approached.

From the roof where Danna was hiding came the rapid report of gunfire. With each shot he heard a human scream. That wasn’t all he heard. A motor started up and rolled forward, impacting with the walls of the house Yurel had been in. It collapsed with the crunch and rend of wood, groaning as nails separated from boards. He peered around the corner of his house, awestruck as he saw a tank-like machine drive completely over the building toward the one where half of the non-combatants were hidden.

Pericles heard a whine. Something burned as it grazed his cheek. The one who'd shot at him paused to reload his shotgun, looking up once with frantic eyes. Panicked, he dropped the gun and Pericles hurled a spear before he could retrieve it. The man howled in pain, clawing with both hands at the long shaft of wood penetrating his chest. Pericles cut a zig-zagging path across the yard toward the tank. He was too late to prevent it from rolling over the house and his heart stopped as he heard the agonized screaming that followed the squealing of the tank tracks. 

With no thought to his own safety, intent on destroying the man in the machine, he swallowed his cry of rage, running on feet and knuckles. The man didn’t see him coming. He sprang up from the sand in one great leap, bounded up the tracks and onto the roof of the truck. With one mighty fist, he shattered the glass and his large hand found some skin and hair to grab hold of.

Twist. Yank. The truck rolled to a halt on the far side of the wrecked house. Hanging onto the head, Pericles leaned into the broken window and looked into the face of a dead man. Roaring in triumph, he leaped down and grabbed his remaining spears. Then, he looked for the next one who needed to die.

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