“Wendy! Where are you?” Steven groped blindly ahead of him and shuffled his feet. The dust hadn’t settled, but it no longer stung his eyes. He glimpsed shadow-like, lumbering shapes in the thick haze and what might have been broken buildings looming over him. The acrid taste and smell of smoke and charred flesh gagged him with every breath. Screams of rage and pain filtered through the nightmare landscape, sending chills down Steven’s spine and encouraging him to quicken his pace.
“Wendy, please, answer me.” His muscles spasmed. The pain brought him to his knees and he gurgled as wave after wave of torment lashed over him. He stared down at his body, a frame he barely recognized, and whimpered. The flesh rolled and expanded. The sinew ripped apart and just as quickly reformed; thicker and stronger. The process had Steven screaming in pain. He punched the ground over and over again in mindless agony, until the transformation ended. He slumped, sucking in mouthfuls of gritty air. “Why is this happening? What is this?” He ran blistered and bleeding fingers across his new musculature. The compact, tight tissue was a foreign feeling and he drew back his hands.
“Steven? Steven, help me,” Wendy’s cry echoed through the chaos.
“Wendy? Where are you?” Steven whirled in circles.
“I don’t know. I can’t see anything. Oh God, what is that noise? What’s going on?” She let loose a ragged cough.
“Honey, calm down. Keep talking so I can find you. Can you do that, baby?” Steven continued to twist around, craning his head to catch the slightest sound.
“You calm down, Steven. Don’t fucking tell me to calm down. Help me.”
“That’s it, baby. Just keep talking. I’m coming, okay? Just keep talking.” He decided on a direction and set off.
“Please hurry. I’m scared. What’s happening?
“It’s okay. I’m going to find you. I’m coming.”
“Okay. What’s wrong with me. Something’s happening to me. Hurry, Steven. I want to go home. Is that you? Oh thank God.”
Steven looked around. He didn’t see Wendy through the dust cloud, but maybe she had seen him? He continued, fueled by the thought that he was close. The pavement was cracked and pitted in places and several times he stumbled over debris. “Wendy? Keep talking, honey.”
“Oh Steven…NO. Steven! Help me.”
Her scream tore through him and he gave up on his cautious pace and shot into a run. Panic gave him increased agility; his feet flew over the wrecked street and obstacles seemed to move from his path. He came upon a shadowed building. A garish, wooden sign half-hung over the eave. Buck’s Tavern, in peeling red paint, decorated the plank. Wendy screamed again. Definitely in there. Steven charged up the creaky stairs and shouldered the door off the hinges. He staggered, shocked by the ease with which it detonated.
The dust-fog was less prominent in the tavern. The place came out of the disaster with very little damage. Wooden tables and chairs cluttered the main area. A strange, musty scent dominated the air; mixed with the reek of stale beer and cigarette smoke. Three men surrounded Wendy, who huddled against the bar. The men were big and odd-looking. A pair of shadowy wings fluttered on one of the men’s back. Another had glowing golden eyes, just like the man who attacked Steven in the street. His fists shimmered with the same color as he flexed them in and out of fists. The last man stood nearly seven feet tall. Long, curved claws extended from his fingers.
All four of them stared at Steven framed in the doorway. “Steven!” Wendy sobbed.
“Wendy! Get away from her,” Steven yelled, balling his hands into fists.
“Steven. Wendy,” the large man with claws said in a whiny, mocking tone. “Don’t just stand there, dip-shits. Get him.”
The two men peeled off the bar and stalked towards Steven without a word. Steven sized each man up. He had been in his fair share of fights in the past, but he preferred to talk first. These men looked dangerous and completely unwilling to be reasoned with. The large man raked his claws through Wendy’s hair and grinned. She whimpered and fought to get away from him. Steven’s new muscles bulged and anger blurred his sight. The man with the wings raced forward. Steven met him half-way, ramming his shoulder into the smaller man’s gut and lifted him. The winged man gurgled out a groan and Steven smiled before slamming him onto a table. The table shattered with the impact and the winged man crashed onto the floor in a cloud of dust and broken wood.
Steven whirled on his other opponent, who stood watching with wide eyes. Steven took advantage of the man’s surprise and launched himself into a headlong leap. The man threw his hands outward and a blast of honey colored light shot from his palms. The light crashed into Steven’s chest like a runaway train and sent him hurtling across the tavern. He hit the ground in a roll, scattering tables and chairs in his wake, and ended in a heap against the far wall.
“Holy shit! Did ya see that, Reese? I blasted that little crapper back to the stone age. This is freaking amazing. I feel like a god.”
“Calm the hell down, Tyler. Make sure he’s down before you celebrate and wake that piece of crap, Grainger up while you’re at it,” Reese said, drawing a claw down Wendy’s cheek. “How about you, sweetheart? Any new upgrades I should know about?”
Wendy cringed away from him. “What are you talking about? What did he do to Steven?”
“Not sure yet, darlin’, but I aim to find out. Wanna come along and see what a real man is like?”
“Stop it. Steven! Help me.”
Steven’s eyes fluttered open. His chest ached and every breath came in a short, sharp gasp. What the hell was that? He heard Wendy’s cry for help and tasted blood in his mouth. The man with the glowing hands, Tyler, was bent over Grainger, slapping the winged man and yelling at him. Steven snaked out his hand and grasped a chair leg. He sat up and threw it in one smooth motion. It sailed across the bar and struck Tyler in the head. The man’s head snapped back and he spun to the ground with a shout of surprise and pain. Steven leapt to his feet and rushed Tyler.
“Watch out you freaking idiot. He’s comin’ straight for ya,” Reese yelled. Tyler, who had crawled to his knees, flicked a glance at Steven. Blood dripped in thick ribbons from his nose and dribbled off his chin. He held his hands out and the glow intensified.
“Gonna blast you good,” Tyler said.
“Not this time,” Steven replied. He dropped into a slide and the burst of golden light passed over his head. Steven struck out with both feet as he slid into Tyler. The kick cracked something in Tyler’s chest and he hit the ground roaring in pain. Steven floated over the screaming Tyler, using one hand to pin the man’s wrists and the other to land a punch. Tyler’s eyes rolled back in his head and he went limp.
Grainger wrapped his arm around Steven’s neck from behind and hauled him to his feet. The man’s forearm dug into Steven’s windpipe. No matter how hard he fought he couldn’t draw a breath.
“That’s it. You got ‘im,Grainger. Choke the bastard out,” Reese said. Steven jerked forward, lifting the smaller Grainger from his feet and flung himself backward to the ground. Grainger expelled a gasp, but clung to Steven’s neck, ratcheting the hold tighter.
Steven twisted and bucked, but couldn’t loosen Grainger’s chokehold. Pressure built behind his eyes and black dots popped in his vision. His lungs burned and panic tightened his stomach. That cold, electric energy burst through him and fastened his hands to Grainger’s forearm.
Grainger screamed as his life-force was torn from him. His body took on the consistency of sand and whole pieces of it sifted through Steven’s hands. Steven sucked in huge gulps of air as Grainger’s body fully disintegrated.
The bar fell silent, aside from Steven’s labored breathing. He glanced up to see Tyler and Reese’s shocked faces. Neither of them moved. His eyes flicked to Wendy and his heart plummeted to his gut. The girl he loved more than anything else in the world, looked at him like he was a monster. Revulsion and horror swam across her face as she shrank against Reese.
“Wendy?” Steven held his hand out to her, but she turned away in fright. “No. Wendy. It’s okay. I’m okay. I had to. You saw it. He would have killed me.” He crawled toward her and tears pooled in his eyes. He hated what he had done, but a part of him enjoyed it and he knew Wendy could see it in him. The thought tore at him. If I could just get to her, hold her, it would be okay.
“You damn freak. What did you do to him?” Tyler yelled as he bunched his fists and stumbled to his feet. He ran at Steven, rage twisting his features into a feral mask. He aimed a kick at Steven’s head, who acted on instinct and grabbed the man’s leg. As soon as contact was made, the life-stealing energy roared through Steven’s arms and entwined Tyler’s soul. Tyler had enough time to let out a high-pitched wail before flaking away to dust.
The burst of energy invigorated Steven. Every cell in his body sang with strength and vitality. He wiped his hands on his jeans and stood, staring down Reese. It happened so much quicker this time and the release…God what has happened to me?
He forced every bit of mock assurance he could into his posture and eyes and took a single step forward. “Let her go or your next.”
Reese flinched and pulled Wendy close. She glanced up from the big man’s shoulder and screamed.
“It’s okay, Wendy. He can’t hurt you anymore,” Steven said.
“What happened to your eyes? What the hell are you?”
The terror in her voice stopped him and he looked to the dirty bar’s mirror. Twin glowing golden orbs stared back at him. Two shadowy wings sprouted from his back and his hands had a golden, crackling nimbus sparking along his fingers and palm. He had lost his shirt somewhere and the increased muscle mass made him look like a chiseled Greek statue. He saw nothing of himself in his reflection, only a nightmare creature wearing a bad facsimile of his face. “What is this?” He ran an illuminated hand over his cheeks and jaw line.
“NO!” Wendy’s voice broke the spell over him and he snapped his head up just in time to see Reese, claws extended, swipe for his throat.