The group stuck around long enough to watch Sam and Eddie crest the hill behind them, and with one last glance down the street where the beak bear came from to make sure it was clear, Mark resumed the trek with his dad and sister. He reloaded his crossbow and frowned at the inefficiency of it. He was having a tough time reloading during fights, but he simply didn’t have the aim with any other ranged weapon. He shrugged and added it to the long list of things to worry about for later.
They immediately settled into a pace that felt comfortable, and was markedly faster than what they were doing when Sam was still with them. Mark had to admit that travelling like this, the three of them, armed to the teeth and ready to kick butt had a certain appeal, but the periodic screams and screeches in the distance reduced the cool factor. This would be a lot more enjoyable if people weren’t dying.
With that sobering thought, Mark arrived to the street where the Carlson’s lived. A large empty lot was on the near corner, and while there were a few trees along the inside edges, it was pretty much a barren meadow. Glancing around, Mark saw a few Fuuzers milling about the street and motioned to his dad. His dad, seeing the obstacle, guided the trio through to field to avoid drawing agro.
Mark was somewhat distracted by keeping an eye on the Fuuzers across the way, and because of it he barely noticed the movement in the trees to their right. At first he thought he just imagined it, but as on edge as he was, he lifted his crossbow and was about to mention something when suddenly the trees erupted in a flurry of activity.
Giant squirrels with eyes that looked like they belonged on a chameleon materialized almost as if from nothing. Mark too late realized the wavey motions must have been some sort of camo ability that the things had. His quick reactions allowed him to knock a bolt into one of the diving creatures. His dad and sister were caught completely off guard though, and five of the remaining things descended on top of them.
His dad had three of the creatures on him, with one landing a solid bite on his arm and the other tangling up his bow. A quick kick knocked the third back but Mark could see his dad would be in trouble soon. The two that jumped down towards Liz had also gone for her arms. She tried to dislodge the one on her right arm while swinging wildly with her bow in her left to keep the other beast away.
Making a split second decision, Mark dropped his crossbow and pulled his katana. “Dad, arm!” he shouted to give his dad a heads up and where he was planning on attacking. Attempting to respond, Jason pulled his arm back trying to draw the creature attached there off balance. Unfortunately for him, the creature seemed to clue in to what Jason was doing and pulled back at the arm at the worst possible moment, fouling Mark’s swing attempt and resulting in the katana hitting his dad. Mark quickly arrested the movement of the sharp blade but not before he felt it cut through some material.
Mark’s eyes widened in horror as his dad’s arm was pulled off at the elbow where he had made his cut. He almost went into shock until he realized it was just the armored sleeve, and his dad’s arm was relatively intact. With his arm now free of a beast, Jason grabbed the closest throwing weapon he could and tossed it at one of the creatures on Liz. “Help your sister Mark! I got this” his dad said. The tomahawk flew true and slammed into a camo-squirrel that had managed to knock Liz to the ground. The weapon hit the creature solidly, pushing it off Liz, and Mark realized that his sister was in some pretty dire straights now.
His dad winced as the one he kicked took advantage of him turning away to swipe at his side, and Mark saw blood fly from the attack. “I’m fine, get to Liz!” his dad said, ignoring the wound and drawing his sword. Mark didn’t even have time to nod as he struck at the tomahawked beast. The slash hit the shoulder of the thing and it collapsed unmoving.
Meanwhile, still on her back, Liz was trying to fight off the beast on her arm. It had clamped down at the reinforced elbow joint, and fortunately the armor was holding. Controlling her arm as best as she could, Liz leveraged the thing to the side and freed up her arm to grab Mr. Fluffers. A moment later the beast released her arm and roared in pain as Liz’s knife slammed into its ribs.
Mark, having dealt with the camo-squirrel in front of him and seeing his sister get some space moved to swipe at the other one. It quickly dodged back though, avoiding his slash completely. The distraction gave Liz enough time to pull out her machete, and with a quick hack against the neck of the creature she partially decapitated it. The thing fell to the ground and both kids turned to help their dad.
Jason, in the meantime, had managed to get some space between himself and his attackers. Without the element of surprise, the creatures were clearly outclassed.Their dad slashed the last remaining creature up across the neck with a flourish and immediately scanned the area. “That’s seems like the last of these things.” he said as he paused to catch his breath.
Quickly, before his sister could say anything, Mark piped up “Sorry about not warning you about the camo-squirrels earlier! I barely noticed them before they jumped us and I wasn’t even sure what I was seeing. It was like the monster from that Predator movie.” Mark finished, a small smile of triumph on his face for naming the creatures what he wanted.
“Yeah, we’ll have to add that to the list of things to watch out for.” Jason replied. He scanned the area one last time trying to see if he could make out any of the telltale shimmers. “For now, I think we’re clear.” as Jason walked over to the mangled sleeve of this armor and picked it up. Mark could see a trail of blood running down his arm.
“Oh jeez! I almost forgot about that! I’m so sorry I cut your arm dad!” Mark apologized.
“It’s okay son, I’m kinda getting used to you kids taking shots at me.” he laughed as he cocked his head over to the kids. “I guess it’s what I get for only bringing crickets to eat during that survival camp.”
“Yeah, you’re right, you probably deserved that.” Mark joked back. He still felt bad but the joke had managed to lift his spirits. It was a good thing too, because everyone was pretty worn down. Thinking about things rationally for a moment, Mark realized he probably had been closer to death more times today than every other day of his life combined. It was a sobering thought, and he was glad his dad could still get them to smile.
Mark walked over and helped get some bandages on dad’s latest collection of wounds. Liz, meanwhile, was doing her best to patch up the holes in her armor with a sewing kit she brought along. Her dad had looked over the arm piece that got ripped off his own suit and had decided it was a lost cause. The camo-squirrel had apparently shredded it pretty badly once it was ripped off.
As Liz was putting the final touches on her patch job, Mark got a contemplative look. “Should we grab the mana cores out of these things? I know you said we shouldn’t mess with them, but they were really useful and they might be important, you know?”
His dad stared at Mark for awhile, and then exchanged a surprised look with Liz. “That’s actually a good idea. Who knows when we’ll get a chance to grab more of these before tonight, and for now the streets pretty clear. They could potentially make a big difference later on.”
“Why do you guys always act so surprised when I come up with good ideas! I come up with good ideas all the time!” Mark complained.
“Like that time you thought you could make skates out of banana peels?” Liz asked.
“Or when you jumped out of the window with umbrellas on that windy day to see if you could fly like a magical nanny?” added his dad.
“Ooo, ooo, or that time you thought you wouldn’t have to bother with sleep if you drank enough Mountain Dew and ended up shaking violently and puking green goo for a couple hours straight?” his sister said with glee.
“Ok, fine, so maybe I had some bad ideas in the past, but I still have good ideas sometimes” Mark grumbled.
“I know son, I know. We just have known you for too long.” his dad said, ruffling his hair. Liz came over and punched him in the arm affectionately. It still hurt, but less than usual. For a moment, they just stood taking comfort in normal activity of teasing each other, but a shriek in the distance pushed them into action again.
Walking over to a camo-squirrel, Jason pulled out his knife and started to dig around the corpse of the beast. While not as precise as the surgical slices of their mom, his experience with skinning and butchering game allowed him to quickly and efficiently cut to beast apart. He found the mana core next to the heart in relative short order and pointed out his findings to Mark and Liz. The kids, seeing their dad’s progress, likewise started to butcher the things.
Jason noted that everyone seemed stressed out and knew exactly what to do. The day was just about as large a fuster cluck as you could ever hope for and he knew that dwelling on the negative would continue to sap at their strength and spirit. He engaged in his tried and true tactic to add levity to any situation. “You know, this meat totally looks edible. Not taking some for later could be a huge miss-steak!”
“Oh, I heart that pun!” Mark said, holding up a four chambered organ recently liberated from a beast.
Liz tried really hard not to laugh, but as Mark and her dad broke into giggles, she couldn’t help but join in. She realized how much stress she had been holding in, and the group took the moment to decompress a little bit. It may have seemed grisly to an outside observer, but the trio had done similar activities while hunting their entire lives. It was good to have some frame of reference to link their stable past to the chaotic present. They finished their collection soon afterwards, divided up the cores, and walked across the street to the Carlson’s. It was good to relax for a bit, but there was still a school filled with kids they needed to get to and a timer that wouldn’t let them forget about a new probable disaster.
Seeing the cars in the driveway and the boarded up windows, Mark was feeling pretty optimistic about the Carlson’s chances. As his dad knocked on the door he crossed his fingers and held his breath. A deep voice from inside called out “Who’s there?”
“Bob? Is that you? It’s me, Jason and the kids. Are you and Etta ok?”
The door swung open and Bob stood in the doorway with a smile. “I knew you’d be out and about in this. Only person in town crazy enough to be wandering the streets. It’s good to see you, and yes, Etta and I are fine. The monsters have been staying away, for the most part. They seem to be scared of the horses.” he gestured them inside.
“Huh, I’d have thought the opposite, but that’s good to hear.” Jason said as everyone walked into the room. “I’m glad you and and the horses are safe too!” Mark gave Bob a big grin as he stepped inside.
“Etta’s out back, she went to check on the colt. She’s been lugging that spikey bar thing you gave us for Christmas. I’ll be damned if it didn’t come in handy. The few things that did come by didn’t stick around after getting poked by that thing.” Bob said, leading them to the back door.
As the group walked outside they saw Etta, standing with bucket in hand, unmoving. She and Bob were in their sixties, but good living and keeping busy and fit. Their sun-kissed skin from riding and gardening had a healthy glow about it and they were pretty much the model for how to age gracefully. “Etta, is everything ok?” Bob asked with some concern, seeing how still his wife was standing.
She slowly lifted her arm to point at the colt in front of them, mouth agape. As Mark walked up to her side he couldn’t figure out what had spooked Etta so much. He looked over to the colt.
“Hey Biscuit, how’s it going, you doing ok?” Mark asked as he continued to puzzle out what had shocked Etta speechless. He had helped take care of the colt since the Carlson’s had first bought him. They had paid a pretty penny for the amazing pedigree he came with and were planning on using him as a show horse. The colt looked to be in good shape and no monsters seemed to be around that would warrant Etta’s reaction.
“I’m Biscuit! I’m good! Hi! ” the colt replied.
Everyone adopted the same slack jawed look Etta had been making. As Mark’s mind resumed limited function, he noted the a little nub of bone growing out from the forehead of the colt, “Uh, I think your colt is a unicorn” he said to no one in particular as everyone’s brain broke again.