Johan Matthias Fairfield
Johan glanced to his left, then to his right. Nights spent patrolling made up the majority of his time. At least this was true for his night habits. During the day he lived like any other, with a job, a home, helping to keep his parents business afloat. He even had friends and social pursuits. On Sundays he would join the other one hundred ninety-nine residents of Oasis for fellowship and spiritual guidance.
That was really where the similarities between him and the rest of society ended, he supposed. Anthrops only slept when the desire arose. The human half of Johan went dormant at night, resting and regaining strength while the beast took over. The shifting process was something he found quite pleasant, too--feeling the formation of new muscles, appendages, claws and the like gave him a sense of wonderment at what the Creator could really do with His creations.
As of now, the were-lion brushed his mane out of his eyes and admired the view. The only hill within a hundred miles of Oasis stood just barely one hundred feet tall and boasted the only notable landmark in the region: a tree. It, of course, was ragged, brown and not very healthy, but it was the pride of Oasis and the high desert. It gave the town its name.
The Cascades kept it that way. Whatever rain fell in region, it fell west of the desert, over the Cascade Range and in the valleys. The lush greens and cool days contrasted starkly with the dry heat and earthy colors of Oasis. It was a rustic beauty in its own right, one that Johan found intriguing--his own fur meshing into the environment.
He personally enjoyed climbing the tree during the nights and perching himself atop its uppermost boughs. Thankfully this night was a quiet one, allowing him time to gaze out at the heavens.
Johan sighed as his walkie-talkie vibrated. He pulled it close to his muzzle and clicked the side button. "Leo here. Report?" A little static broke the silence of the evening before he received any reply. It was good news and he thanked Jesus for it. "Thanks Eagle," he answered, using the were's codename. "How's the highway?"
"Couple a cars," Eagle replied, his robust voice only slightly breathy. "No SATs, it's all clear, Leo. Sun's comin' up too. Should I head back?"
"No," Johan said. "Go ahead and head on home. I'll let the others know." Eagle gave him a positive response and clicked off. Johan smiled, thinking of the fresh doughnuts he would enjoy in little more than an hour's time. He switched his talkie to a wideband channel: "All units, shift and head home. SAT's quiet."
Bear was the only one who responded. "You sure? We still got a few more minutes, boss." Johan told him to go home anyway. "Alright, then. Bless ya, boss. Bear out."
Johan could make one last sweep himself. After all, that was his duty and he did enjoy his were-form. Anything he could do to make the night last a bit longer was worth it. So he hopped off the tree and began making his final round for the evening. The streets were clear, as usual. The SATs never showed that much brazenness as to appear unguarded out of the shadows. Then again, neither was the Claw.
The Christian League of Anthropomorphic Warriors… Johan pondered. Who had decided on that acronym in the first place? It fit, but the short form of it, Claw, made them seem like monsters. We are, from a certain point of view, he decided, checking the nooks of the city park.
That was the quirkiest thing about it all. From most popular culture, they were seen as vicious monsters, always warring against something. There was a certain truth to that, though, in the fact that the Claw were monsters, could be vicious, and were fighting a war. They fought for the souls of Oasis, an unearthly war against the SAT, agents of the devil.
He knew they could be vicious. But they were intelligent, even as he and the Claw were. But, his contact with SAT operatives was fairly limited. At least that was true during the night. Who knew how often he encountered them in everyday activities? What kind of people were they? Reverend Bloomberg had told him once that they were as normal as normal could be, and as cunning and sharp as the devil himself, though how he knew was beyond knowledge.
Johan poked his head down a manhole, holding his breath from the sordid remnants of the town's collective digestive system. He nearly gagged as he inhaled, catching the faintest whiff from the sewer. Thankfully, there was nothing to behold down there.
But he remembered the first time the reverend had seen him, quite by accident. The look of fright that Bloomberg had given him actually caused a fair amount of pain to Johan. The two were good friends during the day, the reverend coming often into his work on errands for his wife. But the reverend had also been well versed in popular culture, and when he had seen the were-lion in full combat, his mind immediately jumped to conclusions.
Reverend Bloomberg had nearly begun to beat him with a shovel when he realized that Johan was not moving at all. The pastor had not spoken anything at all, not even a shocked query. So Johan had made the first introductions, and in so doing, he had violated the Claw's number one standing order: No contact with non-were's while in were form. Johan made mention of that also.
Still, what was done was done. The few alleys were also clear of the SAT as well. The patrol was as quiet as he could have prayed for. Not a single skirmish or sighting. Either their scout had gotten better, or they had spent the night planning some other event for a later date. The leader was known for that. He had been who Johan was fighting when the Reverend appeared. That incident, though, had caused Bane to escape. Fight again another day, he supposed.
He ducked into another alley and shifted back to his human form, oddly similar to his leonine shape, and stretched. The calm had been good for his human body, providing rest and relaxation. With the shift came a sudden feeling of refreshment, like he really had woken from a long night's sleep. But that would soon come to a screeching halt when it came time to open the store.
First though, he had just enough time for a shower and a change of clothes. The idea appealed to his senses and he jogged home and did just that.
Robert Paul Lewis and Stanley Proud Lewis
"Mornin'," Robert greeted. His brother waved at him tiredly, grabbing a bowl from the cabinet. He took another big spoonful of cheerios and shoved it into his gaping maw. "Y'all right?" he asked, crumbs falling from his lips.
Robert shrugged his shoulders and smiled anyway. He had broad features and only just fit into his parents' dining room chairs. His hair was a shaggy black rug in serious need of a combing, but it suited him just fine. After all, if his parents never complained about it, why should he?
"Sure y'all right, bro?" he said.
Stan nodded. "Pass the cereal." With is bowel filled, Stan embarked upon eating the mountain of whole-grain goodness. "Ah can't sleep," he said, swallowing. "Ah keep havin' nightmares, an' then Ah can't get back t' sleep."
"Nightmares, eh? Ya shouldn't eat so much spicy food before bed, Ah'll bet," Stan's brother said. "Or maybe it's them horror movies?" Of course Robert was only kidding, but Stanley seemed to take it seriously and mulled it over, dunking bits of cereal into the milk. "Ever thought they might mean somethin'?"
He could guess, though, the problem's real cause. Robert had gone through the same thing a few years earlier. Then one night he had awakened to find Leo standing over him, and his own body a rather upsetting parody of a bear. The Claw had become a second home to him, his compatriots an extension of his family, and his were-form something to behold.
And now Robert's little brother was going through the same ordeal. The first change was not painful, save for the internal changes during the first part of it. Mostly, he decided, it was in the mind. Waking to find one's self a monster out of some horror novel did not bode well for the individual. The Claw would take care of him, though, just as they had done with Robert.
Learning to appreciate the new abilities a were-form opened up was the first task assigned. But a gift of such magnitude came with equal responsibility, Leo had told him when they had first met. There were others who sought just the opposite of the Claw--destruction was their game, and they played well. His job was to make sure that they lost, to make Oasis safe against the demonic activities threatening to invade.
But Stan could handle it.
"Like what? It isn't a dream, just a feelin'." Just a feeling, nothing more. But it was so pervasive and persistent that he could hardly stand it. While nightmares were few, the unease he experienced more than made up for it. "Ah can't 'splain it."
"What's just a feeling," Mrs. Lewis asked, poking her head into the kitchen. "You still can't sleep, honey?"
"Nah, Ah'm fine, ma." Stan yawned and leaned back in his chair. He was much more petite than his older brother, more lithe and nimble. He moved quicker then his lumbering brother, rapid to a point where he once had thought about joining the Oasis High track team. Of course, that blessing only applied to days when did not feel quite so nauseated. "Ah may go back t' bed after breakfast."
"Well," Mrs. Lewis said doubtfully, "I want you and your brother to go to the store and pick up a few things for tomorrow, alright?" She put a hand across his forehead, her maternal thermo-tendrils checking for any hint of a fever, just in case.
He had not a clue what had caused this prolonged illness. Nothing in the last month had changed about his routines. But nonetheless he had begun to get this nagging feeling in the back of his mind that something was definitely amiss in his body. It was more like he felt a twitch of something new sprouting within him, and that had began to manifest physically by sudden bouts of blurred vision, or stints of aching in his muscles, or the urge to vomit every once in a long while, not that he ever did.
He brushed his mother's hand away. "Ah'll be okay, ma. Jus' give me a day 'r two." Each of the symptoms passed by without incident, and usually he could downplay the intense looks of discomfort his face naturally contorted to. "Ah jus' gotta take it easy, tha's all." Stan smiled reassuringly up at his mother, ignoring a sudden spurt of nausea.
"If you're sure, I suppose you know your body better than I do…" Mrs. Lewis removed her presence from the room, giving her sons a quick kiss goodbye. "I've got some errands to run. The money's by the door and next to the lamp."
"Ah'll take care of 'em, ma," Robert told her as she exited. "And mayb' take em f'r a shave too." He ruffled his brother's mop of a head. "Y'all do need a shavin', y'know."
"Ech. Speak f'r yerself, tiny." Why was it that his brother never had any sort of problem, Stan wondered, swirling his spoon around in a pool of milk. Robert always seemed to be well rested, never in need of anything. Maybe it was just his imagination, but… "How come yer never sick?"
"'Cause Ah don't eat them spicy foods b'fore bed," said Robert, polishing off his bowl. It did not matter why. The reason would become apparent to Stanly soon enough, when he experienced it for himself. The were-bear smiled, just a bit. He was proud to be sitting next to a brand new were, more proud that it was his own brother.
But that left a problem that he would have to discuss with Leo that night. Who was going to show the ropes to Stan? Another were, to be sure. But he desperately wanted to be the one. Yet even discussing the matter with Leo would give his human identity away.
Robert would have to ponder this for a while.
At the market.
"Morning, Reverend!" Johan called, seeing his pastor walk through the door. The chime sounded Bach, a cheery madrigal that livened up the corner store. "Anything I can get for ya t'day?"
"No, sir," the reverend replied. "Just here for some apples. Wife's makin' a pie for tomorrow's auction." He proceeded to the back of the store where Johan kept the produce, fresh and ripe for the buyer.
"Give 'er my regards, sir."
"Yep, I know how you love them pies, boy." Then his voice lowered and he glanced around. "No one's around." Johan could guess what the pastor was going to ask next. And sure enough, he was not far off. "Quiet night last night?"
"I haven't heard of any SAT activity for days," he replied. "Bear and Eagle didn't seem to find anything either, sir." It was enough to make him wonder what on earth they were planning. "I wish I could catch 'em in their human forms, pastor. Then we could go after 'em and take 'em down during the day."
"I've been keeping my eyes peeled, son, and I've not seen anything either. Its like every Sunday morning everyone wakes up perfectly refreshed." There was no way to tell who was were and who was normal. "I probably couldn't tell anyway, could I?"
"No sir. The SAT is as strict as we are. We don't even show our human forms to other were's, just so they don't have that info." The idea was that if anyone were ever captured, the SAT would never be able to get to the others. "They're just as clever too. I've gone toe-t'-toe with em before and they're crafty."
The pastor sighed wistfully. If only he were younger, there might have been a chance for him to have been gifted like Johan. Sometimes the reverend wondered what he might have become under the same circumstances, both physically and spiritually. The young man standing before him was a testament to the pragmatism of God.
I wish I had had your gift, Johan. But God called me to a different front than the physical." Johan put one of his big hands on the reverend's shoulder. "But I pray daily for your continued success."
And he did, daily. After all, his longing to be a part of the Claw was just a dream of grandeur, as if ministering to two hundred people at the front of the church every week was too humble. It was thoughts like these that caused Bloomberg to become a bit complacent. And then he carefully reminded himself that the Claw worked entirely in secret.
"Pastor," Johan told him earnestly, "You have more power on the physical front than you know. Remember that you influence the lives of the whole town. And to me, a mentor of sorts."
Bloomberg brushed off the compliment. "I still wish, though, son." But the boy was right. He had the job of teaching, instructing, counseling the population of Oasis. And to this day he would not have, nor could have, asked for a better life. "I'm just an old man with dreams of grandeur, Johan."
"Give yourself some credit, sir," Johan told him. "Consider it an early birthday gift, but I might be able to get you in on a tactical session, though." The reverend's face lit up at that, just as he had expected. For months Bloomberg had been wondering about the possibility of meeting the others. "I'd have to clear it with the others first, but they already know you know."
The chime sounded again, alerting Johan and the reverend to the presence of the Lewis brothers. The two took no time to waste and went about searching for their listed items. Robert's ruddy face glanced over the paper once and he moved toward the center isle while his brother stared hungrily at the miniature bakery in the corner.
"'Ello, Johan," Robert said, passing him by without glancing up from the crumpled note his mother left. "Mornin', pastor."
"Anything I can help with," Johan asked. He caught a glimpse of the note's contents and grabbed a box of baking soda from the top shelf. "Auction's tomorrow. We were just gettin' some apples for Mrs. Bloomberg."
"Ma's makin' some sweetbread for it. Ah hope y'all got plenty of them apples." Johan assured him that there was a fresh supply in the back. "And yeah, how's the doughnuts t'day? Ma gave us a bit extra."
"Bear claws and apple fritters," he said, "like always. And my mother still thanks you for the idea of a deli service too. You just like food though." Robert grinned and stooped down to grab a bag of flour. "They're fresh too and piping hot, just how you like 'em."
"Thanks. We're havin' a get together sometime soon, too. Ma told meh to invite yer fam'ly an' you." He also hefted a ten pound sack of sugar as well and went to fetch a basket and other sundries. "An' the reverend," he added.
"We'll be there," Bloomberg said as Robert headed back to the front again.
"They smell good," he said, coming up behind his brother. "Don't tell ma, but Ah skimped on the flour a bit."
Stan stood quiet for a moment. "I'm not hungry," he said, though that was technically a lie. In fact, he was ravenously so. But he felt ill at the same time. "Ah think Ah should go home."
"Ya sure yer okay, though? Back at the house ya said y'all felt--Oh golly, wow!" Stan turned to face him, and in doing so gave his brother a start. "Yer eyes--ther yella…" Johan and the pastor were short in running to the front to see what was the matter. They too made exclamations at the odd yellow hue to Stan's eyes.
"What do you make of that, Reverend?" Johan needed not to ask the question, though. He already had an inkling of the answer, and now the situation became more complicated. The SAT would be after him once his first shift was over. "Perhaps he's sick," Johan suggested at length. "You had better get 'em home before he vomits all over my nice clean floor."
He pointed to the mop, leaning against the corner.
It looked like Stan's haircut had gone down the tube, Robert decided. "Yeah, Ah'll do that. C'mon, bro. Don't wanna get ev'ryone else sick too." He looked at his brother again, the yellow eyes staring down to the floor, and then gasped again. Scales were forming on his neck.
"We'll be prayin' for him," Bloomberg told Robert. "I hope he's better before tomorrow."
"Ah hope Ah'm better, too, sir," Stan said.
Stanly sat staring at his hands. Two hours ago he had felt better than he had all month, capable of almost anything, now he was sick to his stomach from some unknown cause. His body now itched from his head to his feet, due to rapidly drying skin.
Currently he sat on his bed, unmade from the sleepless night before. Robert had told him to stay there, and wait for a doctor, or "some other professional." It was that last addendum that worried him. Even discounting the ninety minutes that had passed since those instructions, Robert was not one to cause unnecessary disquiet in people, or use big words.
Something was very wrong with himself, Stan decided half an hour ago. There new things starting to rear up every minute it seemed, aside from the typical stuff he had been through. The thing with his eyes, for instance, was a shock to him as well. His skin had grown dryer, paler, and there little bumps stating to form on his fingers. But what concerned him most was the aching at the bottom of his spinal cord, a pressure-like pain that no shift in posture relieved.
"Where are ya, bro?" he wondered aloud.
On the other side of the door, Robert sat stone-silent, attempting to think harder than he ever had before about a solution to the problem. God, what should Ah do? Ah can't tell 'em without breakin' the rules! But 'e needs t' know, too. God, what should Ah do?
He knew the reason why those rules were in place, for the continued protection of the Claw's membership. Then again, sometimes circumstances called for a bend in the rules. Leo had encountered Reverend Bloomberg once, and that led to him knowing everything about the Claw. Robert wondered if now was one of those times.
"God," he whispered, frantically hoping his decision was the right one. "Please let meh b' right. Please let Leo understand, sir. And Jesus give meh strength, too." Now was definitely a time for action, not indecision. Whatever Robert did, he knew it would work out for the best. "All things work f'r the glory o' God," he said to himself, opening the door to his brother's room.