They had consumed all the animals first. Perhaps they thought it was a mercy.
It's hard to tell how much the necro-kai think, how much the electrons pinging around in their brains have re-awakened any kind of logic or conscience,
Even with his powerful skills in reading, Gryffon couldn't get past the scrambled code, the disfigured ruin of what was once a brain that thought in terms of language and numbers, now wrapped with layers of overlapping images. Visions painted one over another in a cloudy mess by the possessing soul, reminiscent of the fragmented thoughts of the schizophrenic. It's a wonder they can even walk around without bumping into things. The last time he'd tried poking around in one of their heads, he'd been rewarded with nightmares. Wide-eyed fish with human teeth. What the fuck was that about?
But then, maybe their visions are just another version of the way things are. Always had been.
Some, upon awakening, had fled into the woods, devouring the deer and birds, leaving a trail of perfectly clean skeletons strewn unhidden, plain as day in the leaves. Others went for pigs, dogs, the domestic pets and farm animals that dotted over the landscape, leaving any remains of their corpses still in their pens, on their doorsteps.
They didn't approach the Cats. Not yet.
It couldn't last, he knew. They were just so many of them. And they were increasingly possessed--driven by a hunger more ancient and powerful than they'd ever felt in their years as living men. It was a sort of madness in itself.
This beginning was as abrupt in its start as it was in its end. The animals died out, or were driven into hiding. The humans began to starve. In a matter of days, the battles between the humans and the necro-kai began.
And then they ended.
Now Gryffon stretches himself out and ambles into the wilderness. Winter is descending. It is his wasteland. It is his kind's turn to battle.
Gryffon nuzzles the human girl's leg, pawing at the ground. The sky is a smoky gray, and it's hard to tell the sun has risen. The snow makes their footsteps silent, and the winter pink glow of the world renders the vacant street alien, even to his ancient eyes.
The girl walks slowly, trance-like, and he guides her steps around a slush pile. She's been tied by the wrist to him; not harshly, just with simple twine, enough for him to lead her on. He always expects her to glance down, to shudder at the plaster of flesh and veins underfoot, but it's smothered by the night-whiteness now, sidelined off the recently-worn path of footsteps pressed in the ice, and anyway she doesn't even look.
Eight lives he's got under his belt, and this last life is the first he's regretted his wish for wilderness. Peacetime was good. His kind dream different when they're loved, they dream of boxes and newspaper and blanket-covered feet. Hunting and terror become overrated passions. He's learned that when you're loved they scratch you behind the ears and you make the sound that means, "I am yours." And you can never, ever, take it back.
Not even in the face of this.
Stephanie. Oh Stephanie. She stumbles on forward, and he nudges the back of her knees.
She is the last one left in this place, and he knows her kind. They oughtn't be alone.
Just one step further, and another. They can get there. Following the scent of a rumour on the wind, the whiff of hope needling through odors of blood muzzled by snow. It shivers through his whiskers. They can get there.
He had found her when he was searching for other things. Food, mainly. The simple, terrorized thoughts of small creatures, burrowed deep underground, are quiet; they take careful listening. He paced the city streets--how quickly they've gotten overgrown with weeds and vines, choking their way through the cracks in cement--ears pricked for mental rodent panic.
Instead, he'd heard another sound. Equally quiet, equally scared, but distinctly, unsettlingly human. The quivering, rampant thoughts of a child. She's afraid, he can tell, even at his distance, but's a powerful fear. A dangerous fear. He's surprised, when he finally found her, cowering beneath a pile of cement blocks and splintered beams, at her youth. God damnit, she couldn't be more than four.
But here she was, alive against all odds. They were kindred spirits, Gryffon and the girl--Stephanie, he learned with a little prying. Alone in the wasteland, yes, but it's more than that. Two wanderers passing in the night, and each, without looking, knows the other's touch of magic. It stirs in her. She is protected.
She feels him poking around in her head, but she doesn't pull away. Instead, she looks up, eyes wide and wet, and she holds out her hand. After a moment's hesitation, he concedes, lets the lost little girl stroke his fur.
The love blossoms in his mind and courses through his blood like sunlight flooding a landscape, bursting through the trees, and he purrs. And that, until the the end, is that.
They keep walking. Ashes sprinkle from her clothes as they go. He's glad that they fall, that they don't stain her; the snowfall has washed the lingering flecks out of her hair, and he hopes the memories, too, can be shaken loose. They're trapped inside her, in her mind's eye, branded into the crevices of her brain where the spark hides. Waiting.
It has lept before. Ghost images of her parents, huddled around her to save her from the monsters' wrath. But she is scared, so scared, and the fear roars from her body and devours them whole.
Gryffon found her in the aftermath, of course. Let the rest be history.
They are are being followed.
The slow scrape of a dragging leg against the ice pricked Gryffon's ears. He doesn't turn, but he quickens his step, hoping Stephanie will keep pace. She doesn't have any trouble, the change in their stride concerning her less than the memories that play out in the empty space that holds her gaze.
There are twelve hours until nightfall, but she hasn't eaten, and he knows they'll need to stop and rest soon. Rest and eat something. How terrible a fate, to have made it all this way only to die slowly, one cell at a time, as their skin clutches closer and closer to their bones. But Winter is a sharp eyed huntress.
Gryffon lets the scraping get louder. Tugging on the twine, he leads Stephanie into a cove of snow formed by a natural embankment off the side of the road. She shivers and stares straight ahead, but when they get there, she understands well enough to follow his lead. She crouches down, hugging her knees to her chest, and waits.
He feels a twinge of guilt creep into his shoulder. There is nothing right about this, he knows. Nothing right about a young girl alone in the cold. Nothing right about a girl who stares, with flame red hair, who never speaks.
The scraping is here now, a tangle of scratching and screeching of of chips of bone sunken through flesh being dragged across raw ice.
The smell of rot and bacterial sweat explodes into their nostrils, barreling past the numbness of the cold, and Gryffon braces for impact. Even in the low January light, the once-human creature's shadow blooms across them, dark and thick, and he looms above the crouching pair, a tower of disfigurment.
The monster stares at them with it's yellow eyes, blood dripping from serrated pores. His shoulders slump and his eyes squinch shut, the echoes of tears playing about his eyelids; he shudders and makes a moan more mournful than the yewlings of Gryffon's own youth, a jagged song of agony, of lonesomeness and loathing, and as the shuddering noise crawls from his throat, Gryffon bites Stephanie on the hand.
The silent girl screams.
The blaze is short this time-- a quick burst of flame, the scent of charred flesh, of burning hair and ashen ancient clothes and its over with.
Stephanie pants, breathless, but she doesn't seem faint. She hasn't even broken a sweat; her skin is clean and dry as the icy air. She trembles, though, and Gryffon hopes it's just the cold. He doesn't know what it does to her, what secret magic's unlocking this ancient weapon in her mind has done for her, but he curls into her side to aid her from her receding warmth, and hopes it's for the good.
Later, he slices apart the corpse, dividing the baked tissues between them, and she scratches him behind the ears. He drapes his head over her thigh and wants so desperately to know that this means that she is safe, that to say "I am yours" means his intentions are pure. But as he eats the zombie's flesh, he hears the voices clearer in the wind, and his mind sizzles with the anticipation of power.
That's all it is, between them. Power's all it's ever been; peacetime or in the throes of war. That's all it is.
This is an ancient dance. He doesn't know the names of the magic that possesses the necro-kai. He doesn't know what sort of spirits unlock the minds of children--the pyros, the telepaths, the psychic warriors of all sorts. He only knows that they must enact this battle to the end, that this ninth life will see him to the end of the world. Maybe, someday, he will be re-awoken yet again, as a necro-kai himself. A necro-cat. The thought makes him shiver.
At the moment though, he is very much alive. He is living and he loves, and even as the dark magic courses through his veins, he'll be damned if he can't make that count for something.