Saliva flows out of my mouth. For the first time, the torrent that gushes out is true and genuine and unstoppable.
Sissy. Heper smells roaring off her, drawing me to this flesh, this bone, this blood.
It moves, backing away. Fear and suspicion growing in its eyes.
With a sudden burst of speed that surprises even me, I leap atop it.
The smell. Oh, the intoxicating fragrances rippling off its skin in waves, saturating my senses. It struggles under me, its quivering body beckoning me. I feel an irresistible need, a desire, a must to plunge into it, and devour and drink.
“Gene!” it shouts.
I stop. Shake my head.
I throw myself away from her, fearing what I will do next. With shock, I realize I’ve thrown myself up to the ceiling, am suspended upside down. I slide away from her, trying to get away, away from the soft melt of her skin, the alluring fragrances flowing off it.
It flops over, but not in defense. It starts to shake, shift, spasm.
I can’t hold back any longer. I give in, dropping to the floor, my body twisting midair. Claws rip out of my fingertips; fangs jut out of my mouth.
On all fours, I pounce toward it.
It smacks me in the side of the head, and I go pirouetting into the ceiling. I land awkwardly, body smacking against the table. When I spin around, readying to pounce again, she’s staring me down, crouched like a cat about to spring.
She snarls. Fangs gleam.
All heper smells cut off like a spigot turned. She’s no longer heper; she’s turned. Only the drip-drip of residual heper sweat and oily secretions on her skin. And on my own skin, which I smell now. I lick my arm, lapping at heper sweat. A burst of flavor exploding on my tongue. I lick again, the length and thrust of my tongue surprising me.
The people around us are shouting. Their voices are loud and excited but are no longer the high-pitched wails that once lashed my eardrums. Or perhaps it’s my ears that have changed and I’m merely hearing the same sounds differently.
Sissy is licking all over her body, her thick red tongue lapping across her arms, fingers. I go to her, the virginal female heper fragrance smeared on her skin even more tantalizing and intoxicating than the male heper residues on my skin.
I lick her exposed shoulder. She shrugs me off halfheartedly, too distracted in her own licking. I lick, lick, on her neck, behind her ear, lick, lick places she is unable to reach.
She smacks me on the back of the head. I hiss at her, fury burning in my eyeballs. Then I smell her armpits, the residue of heper oils emanating from those twin coves. An electricity animates my every nerve. I must have at them.
The glass ceiling suddenly cracks with a splintering intensity. Hundreds of people, having scaled the walls, have gathered above us, and their cumulative weight is too much for the glass roof.
At the sight of the large cracks quickly spreading into a web of smaller gashes, a vestigial fear kicks in, clearing my head for a moment. They’re going to come crashing through any second now. And though Sissy and I may be two of them, it will be only a fine distinction to them. They’ll smell the residual heper smells on us. They will rip us to shreds.
I grab Sissy, pull her away from the conference room. She gets it. We bound down the hallways, even as the roof caves in. People falling to the floor all around us, already picking themselves up, chasing after us, smelling the heper scent still on our skin.
“Sissy, this way!” I say, the feel of her name on my tongue cumbersome and slightly ridiculous. It is already feeling odd, this labeling of a person with a personal designation.
We race into the floor lobby on all fours. Even in the midst of this pandemonium, I feel a strange exhilaration. The speed, the dexterity of my body, everything connected and working in fluid, animalistic coordination. Clunky kinks worked out, a grace and a power surging through my flowing movements.
“Gene!” Sissy shouts, glancing back.
A flood of people is racing toward us, on the ceiling, the walls, the floor. Ramming through glass walls, smashing aside furniture.
But we have velocity, too, now. We are nimble and agile and strong, too, now. We turn the corner with too much speed, but our arms and legs skate under us with instinctual coordination, claws scraping across the marble flooring. We skid ninety degrees, fishtailing slightly, then leap toward the elevator doors. We crash right through, flying right into the very throat of the atrium. As we knew they would be, the walls of this deep vertical well are covered with people climbing up, smeared with melted flesh, like thickly spread peanut butter. We take this all in with analytical eyes, even as we’re suspended in the raw drop of the atrium. There’s no fear, only a pulsating exhilaration. We fall at an angle, the wall within arm’s reach.
We’re not the only ones who jumped. The chasing horde is leaping after us, a waterfall of bodies.
Falling right beside me, Sissy links her arm with mine. “Now,” she says.
And together, we reach into the thick layer of climbing people, grabbing bodies, kicking down on limbs and heads, doing whatever we can to slow down. Everything is a blur as we skim along, and then we’re slicing into this thick layer of sticky bodies, slowing down. Eventually, only a few floors above the main lobby floor, we come to a stop.
We leave the building with relative ease after that. We’re not the enemy, not the prey, not anymore. All residual heper oils and secretions have rubbed off and been smeared onto other bodies. And from head to toe, we’re covered with the tar of their melted flesh. We’ve gained what I have sought my whole life: perfect anonymity. We skirt along the perimeter of the lobby, avoiding the crash of bodies still falling from above, sidestepping around the rush of people surging into the Domain from the streets.
Outside, the night sky is thankfully darkening. Visibility improves with every passing minute. Everything is wonderfully clear, sharp, and in focus. Sissy and I race with exuberant abandon side by side, avoiding the crowds. Twenty blocks out, the swell of crowds shrinks to a trickle. We continue another ten blocks, running against traffic, until it is only the two of us.
We help each other wipe off the sludge in our hair, our ears, under our claws. If she’s disgusted, she’s not showing it. In fact, she’s not showing any expression at all. Her face is smooth, bereft of any emotion, covered with a sheen of equanimity. I can’t take my eyes off the purity of it.
“We re-turn now,” she says mechanically, as if reading from a script. “We drink each other’s blood. Then we head to the Palace. For David.”
I don’t move. She doesn’t move.
I stare down at my paws on the ground. “It’s better if we re-turn after we get to the Palace. If we stay this way, we won’t need a horse. We can sprint to the Palace in less than two hours. And we won’t have to worry about being detected, hunted down. Plus, we can use the Origin weapons there to re-turn ourselves much more quickly.”
She pauses, hesitating. We look at each other. Blink, once, twice. I know this look. It’s the look of a person with a new toy or gadget, wanting to test it out.
And just like that, we’re off. We slice between buildings, along the empty streets, two blurs sprinting on all fours. Within minutes, we’ve hit the fuzzy borders of the metropolis, the concrete pavements ceding to the sun-baked desert terrain. Under the night sky, everything is possessed with pure, hard lines, a cleansing translucency to everything.
So incredible, the feeling. The wind rushing against the face, the sense of power exploding in the bunched muscles of my legs, my two arms reaching forward, grabbing earth, thrusting it beneath my flying body, soaring through the night air. The smells of the desert channeling in from miles around, my nose a sensory periscope that gathers information so much deeper, richer, than sight, touch, taste, and hearing combined.
And again, that undeniable sensation of feeling finally, completely, at home in my body. A rightness about this, a pang satiated, a destination reached.
Next to me, Sissy sprints, eyes half-closed against the wind, her nose twitching, flaring. She howls with delight, her voice joining mine. She is a marvel of beauty and grace and power, her legs launching her body into a beautiful gliding trajectory, her body long and sleek as it sails through the night air, gravity a side thought.
About twenty minutes into the run, halfway to the Palace, we pause. Lift our noses into the air. We now smell them: hepers in the Palace, their odor thick and luxurious. At first, their fragrance is only vague and generalized. But then something happens. The floodgates open, and the aroma—compelling in itself already—explodes into the night sky, reaching even the stars. It sweeps over us seductively in dozens of individualized fragrances. Wet, bloody scents, crystal clear, flowing across the desert plains, blown by the wind, staining crimson every grain of sand. It is almost too much, overpowering. With so much heper blood suddenly released, it can only mean one thing. They’ve entered the catacombs. They’re hunting the hepers. They’re bloodletting the hepers.
Sissy and I look at each other. The smallest suggestion of guilt flares in her eyes over the quickly forgotten and barely remembered. A tiny rupture of shame.
And just like that, all commitment to some previous agenda vanishes, replaced by an all-consuming desire. We take off, our legs pounding even faster now. Long chains of drool dangle out from the corners of our mouths, trailing like ribbons.
A couple of minutes later, we stop. Not from fatigue. But because the ground is rumbling, a deep-seated quaking. We look behind us. The shaking is coming from the metropolis. People are now leaving it in droves, racing toward the Palace. We know why: The explosion of heper odor from the Palace, blown by a fierce gust of wind, has reached the metropolis. Has filled its streets and buildings with a pungent musk. Causing the millions of citizens to simultaneously cock their heads toward the Palace. In wonderment. For this is a fragrance never before imagined, of a quantity and variety never before even fantasized, comprised of hundreds of hepers. And now, the whole metropolis is sprinting toward the Palace, the young and old, male and female, a 5 million strong horde. For heper blood, heper flesh, so much of it.
I feel no fear. I’m not the prey. I’m the hunter, a hunter, one of millions. I’m just like everyone else and the thought fills me with a strange gladness. I belong. For the first time in my life, I don’t feel other; I feel together. Not apart, but a part. Joined with everyone, with the millions behind me, with the whole world. And so when I kick out my legs and start racing for the Palace, what fuels my excitement is not only the prospect of what lies ahead but also the deep joy of belonging. The kind of elation you feel when the last puzzle piece—so oddly shaped—is finally fitted in to complete the picture, beautiful after all.