Taller-dead-one had found the cellar – a lone remnant of a long destroyed house left in this nowhere place.
They'd come there to hide. In Murray's opinion, they hadn't done a good job so far. Already, those that hunted them – the Skaa soldiers – had found them, and nearly finished them off in another part of the forest. They had gotten away, but one of them had been lost – the doctor-dog. She'd been the only person who'd known anything about what to do when out in the middle of nowhere.
They couldn't have lost a more important person if they'd tried.
Apart from scaredy-girl – protecting her was the whole reason why they were out there.
White-eyed-dog and girl-dog (Murray was finally over calling her 'bitch') had spent the day racing around the group, trying to ruin their tracks – it seemed to have worked, but Murray still thought stopping to shelter in a dark, enclosed hole in the ground was an extremely stupid thing to do.
No-one else seemed to agree with him – not that he bothered to voice his opinion – because they all filed down the weathered stone steps, and ducked into the dark.
Only one refused to go – winged-warrior. She had eyed the darkened doorway with distaste, and walked away, back into the undergrowth and trees.
The others had tried calling her name to bring her back, but she'd just kept walking.
Half-dead-boy had taken her desertion the worst.
"Fine!" he'd screamed after her. "Leave us to die so you can go off and sulk - like we give a flying fuck!"
Shorter-dead-man had clamped one hand around half-dead-boy's mouth, and dragged him back inside the cellar.
"We don't need her," dead-woman had said glancing back to the departing winged-warrior with a sneer, directing scaredy-girl, and consequently, Murray, inside with a not-so-gentle push. "We can look after you ourselves."
From the shiver that ran through scaredy-girl as she ducked into the low, rain-slicked doorway, she didn't believe dead-woman for a moment.
Neither did Murray.
It wasn't as dark inside as Murray had expected. The open doorway let in a thick stream of daylight, which, while rain-darkened, still made everything just visible.
Scaredy girl had begun to scratch at her collar bone in nerves, her fingers plunging straight through Murray's pole-cat head. It was an irritating sensation. With a small sigh, Murray concentrated on making himself real, until scaredy-girl's fingers were pushed out onto the surface of his fur, where they immediately began to worry away in a manner that was sort of stroking. It seemed to calm her down.
Half-dead-boy paced about the cellar with the frustrated anger of a caged animal. His eyes darted constantly up to the rectangle of soggy daylight – where the winged-warrior was.
This pacing brought him straight to scaredy-girl's side. He may have been about to say something to her, but instead noticed the sinuous, furry creature draped about her neck.
"You," he said, one finger coming up to jab at Murray's face, "Where the fuck were you earlier?"
Murray scrabbled up so that he sat on scaredy-girl's shoulder, and glared at half-dead-boy.
"Don't just stare at me like that," half-dead-boy spat, "You should have done something – anything, and then Katie could still be alive." The finger rose to jab again.
Murray curled his upper lip back to bare his needle-sharp teeth.
"But I didn't, so she's not," he sneered. "Bitching about it will change nothing, half-dead boy."
The boy growled.
"I have a name, you fucking ferret!"
Murray began to say that he didn't care - it was important for him to remember faces, not names - but a sudden pinch came to the back of his shoulders interrupted him completely.
Taller-dead-one had him in a vice-grip by the scruff of his neck. Murray's eyes bulged in his frozen skull as he gasped at the intolerable pain of being lifted from Fallow's shoulder.
Damn, taller-dead-man had been quiet.
"Look at this," he called out to the other dead-ones, "You can touch it after all."
Murray's eyes rolled up into his little skull – the length of his spine began to convulse in spasmodic shudders.
"Stop it -" came scaredy-girl's voice, so quiet and thin.
Murray was vaguely aware of all the others crowding around. Their words and comments all bled into one amorphous mush of sound – the only thing Murray could think about was the feeling of taller-dead-one's finger-tips pinching down into Murray's flesh, crushing the network of flesh, nerves and blood Murray had worked so hard to create.
If the pain didn't stop soon, Murray was going to be sick.
The grip suddenly loosened, and Murray plummeted to the ground. Once back to his senses, Murray glared up at the crowd around him.
They were all studying him with a grave silence that he didn't like one little bit.
Smaller-dead-one looked up from Murray to half-dead-boy.
"And you know it can do it?"
"It plays at being human all the time," he said spitefully, glancing down to catch the horrified expression on Murray's face.
The little shit had told on him.
Murray reared up onto his hind legs, and returned the stares with an all-round, fuck-off glare.
"If the Skaa cretins come, you're going to be Eva for us," smaller-dead-one said.
Murray didn't currently have any solid internal organs, but if he had, they would have plummeted straight into his feet. Pretend to be winged-warrior in front of a regiment of militia who were all keen to kill her?
His head began to shake from side to side.
"Nuh," he said, "Nuh-huh..."
"You don't have a choice, do you?" half-dead-boy growled, crouching down to Murray's eye level. He pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket. "You've been leeching on us way too long. It's about time you gave a little back, isn't it?"
He opened the paper to reveal a mass of nasty scribbles surrounding a large, geometrical symbol. Murray flinched from it, and hissed.
Half-dead-boy grinned nastily.
"Knew you'd recognise this," he said, "ready-made magic, isn't it? Keep up your attitude, and I will use this to put you in here," he pulled out an ugly metal locket from the inside of his shirt and let it dangle menacingly, "and then I will hand you over to the nearest witch I find. Okay?"
Before Murray could answer, a small cry came from scaredy-girl, as she stumbled clumsily to lean against the nearest wall. Her hands grappled about her head, searching fitfully for her temples and pressing down hard when she found them. Her breathe quickened, both in sight and sound, to panicked pants, and when her eyes regained focus, they were full of fear.
"They've found us," she said.
The dead-ones and the dogs snapped immediately into action. Half-dead-boy turned back to Murray, paper in one hand, locket in the other.
"So, feck-wit," he said, the shadow not strong enough to hide the sudden draining of what little colour he had, "What'll it be?"
Murray curled his lip.
It was really quite... just what was the right word exactly - thrilling? - to see the wave of unease that rippled through the Skaa soldiers as Murray dropped, as the winged-warrior, to the ground.
Without a word, he, or for the sake of specifics now, she, drew her sword, flicking out the glimmering blade from its hilt.
The soldiers stood in strict formation, twelve of them in all. The majority were dead-ones, with two dogs, a few glamoured-ones and a witch added into the mix. The witch wore glasses covered in scratches and markings – seer goggles.
That was going to make this so much harder - why the dead-ones inside had been so insistent that Murray took on winged-warrior in solid form, and not just her image, became startlingly clear.
Stood at the centre of the formation was a small, delicate looking dead-man, who Murray decided had to be the boss of this dangerous rabble. Unlike the others, he smiled at winged-warrior's arrival.
"How sweet," he said, "you're playing guard dog,"
*You have no idea...* Murray thought bitterly to herself. She shifted her pose, stepping one strong leg forward, and dipping into a slight crouch, sword rising, ready for its first swing. She just had to hope she was doing it right.
By the look on the boss-man's face, it was more than good enough. His smile vanished for a small moment, before being replaced by a grimmer smile.
"My, my," he said, "losing that dog must have upset you. I've seen you pull that face so often, dearheart, yet this is the first time I've seen it pointed in my direction."
The smile stretch wider, showing off his sharpened teeth, "It's really quite exhilarating."
Murray had to restrain a gulp. Boss-man was obviously expecting the fight of his life, and Murray barely knew how to hold the damned sword like winged-warrior, let alone use it. Every fibre of her screamed to run. Just fall apart and vanish – find someone who wasn't constantly being hunted or persecuted to attach herself to.
Her gaze caught on the witch standing at the smallest dead-one's side, peering curiously at Murray through her special glasses. How long would it be until someone like her hunted Murray down in a new life? Then what would she do?
Murray shifted her hold on the sword to a stronger grip. How hard could swinging this thing around be anyway? A small smirk found its way onto her lips.
Immediately, Murray knew she'd made a mistake. The boss-man frowned, eyes narrowing.
"Charge her," he said to the front row of soldiers – two dead-ones, a glamoured-one and a dog. They hesitated.
"Do it!" he snarled, drawing his own weapon.
The dog rushed first. It began as a stocky young man, but by the time it reached Murray, it was a slavering, long-toothed beast of a thing – not like any of the dogs Murray had ever seen before. The dead-ones followed, various needle sharp weapons appearing from the folds of their uniforms and into their hands.
Murray tried, she really did, but the sight of those three, charging down towards her caused her to literally fall apart – if only for a moment. But that moment was enough to blow her cover. The second it happened, the bespectacled witch's eyes widened, and her mouth dropped open.
"It's a fake!" she said, "that's a shapeshifter."
"I had figured that out," the boss-man said coldly.
The witch ignored his scathing tone, and instead began to bounce on the balls of her feet with childish excitement.
"Let me have it Sir," she pleaded, already pulling out a small flick-blade from her belt. "It's so rare to come across one this developed."
The three who had rushed Murray barrelled straight through her. They paused in confusion, looking back to their boss. He signalled them, and the rest of his soldiers forward, as Murray sent the mental message "SHIT'S HIT THE FAN!" to scaredy-girl
The boss-man glanced at the witch with an expression middling somewhere between boredom and disgust.
"Don't let it hold you up," he said, before joining his soldiers, charging through Murray, to go down the steps.
The witch began to carve something into her hand – the same symbol half-dead-boy had brandished on the paper. She began to edge forward, a coaxing smile on her face.
Murray felt the panic set in. The surrounding air was beginning to curdle and thicken. Vanishing away wasn't an option now.
So instead, Murray did the next best thing - ran straight back into the cellar.
Let's see how that lot liked meeting a tiger...