Summary: Dr. Michelle Penrose never imagined she would be infected with a lycanthropic disease, let alone hurled onto a world she barely comprehends. Pursued by dark forces merging fringe science and dark magic, she realizes that the stakes are much higher than her own survival. What does one life matter when dealing with the survival of a species?
"The world began without man, and it will end without him." -Claude Levi-Strauss, "Tristes Tropiques"
Chapter 1: The Final Moon
Dr. Michelle "Shell" Penrose's last day on Earth began with gunfire at midnight. Her green eyes shot opened in bed as she frantically searched for their origin. Looking around the empty dormitory, she instinctively grabbed a pen on the table beside her bed as an improvised weapon. The miasmic humidity clung to her every pore on her nearly naked pale skin as the pallid moonlight eerily illuminated the room. Outside the window was the tropical and feverish Montoyan jungle and its innumerable predatory denizens.
The report of a shotgun echoing in the hall outside reminded Shell of which species she currently feared the most. Someone screamed and sobbing was heard, but silenced immediately after another gunshot. Her flight response compelled her to vault through the window and take her chances with the jaguars and snakes, but the heavy footfalls of a dozen men and blinding illumination of muzzle-mounted flashlights kept her well away from the windows, praying to no deity in particular to grant her the strength to survive. Tightening her grip on the steel pen, she laid under the bed and watched the door.
"Check all the rooms, since he can't have gone far. He's separated and fleeing," commanded a voice resonating with authoritarian cruelty. "No survivors!"
Her heart pounded like a stampede of elephants. Sweat glistened from her short brown hair as it cascaded down her cheek over the barbed wire scars of former stitches. Clasping the writing implement with the tightness of a vice, Shell remembered what brought her to her likely imminent death in the backwater Central American country. A rock climbing accident had lacerated the left side of her face, and she lost her job when her Seattle start-up business imploded without her. She'd heard of a non-profit organization trying to hire clinical engineers to oversee the deployment of clinics in Montoya as it recovered from an outbreak of violence the previous year. The risks were high, but the pay was excellent. Eager to travel, she had departed without a second thought.
As another gunshot rang out, Shell almost regretted her decision. The non-profit had set up the dorms near a remote clinic, but she had no idea why the gunmen were here now. She wished for a better weapon, perhaps even the ice axe that sliced open her face. Screaming from the adjacent room caused her to consider the others in the dorm as they were gunned down by thugs for reasons they'd never know.
"Check under the beds!" shouted one of the gunmen. "He's close!"
Realizing her chances beneath the bed were now drastically reduced, Shell again checked the back windows. The flashlight beams and silhouetted figures beyond them from before had gone. Deciding to take her chances with flight, she pulled herself out from under the bed the same instant that the door exploded. For a moment she stood paralyzed, immediately judging the distance between her assailant was drastically closer than the window. As a swarthy man brought his weapon around, she had already made her decision.
Shell bolted to the side, laying one hand on the barrel of the shotgun and other thrusting the pen deep into his trachea. In the instant his grip loosened, she allowed the krav maga training she had received do the rest. Her hips threw her entire body behind torquing the gun out of the murderer's hands, only to step back once she brought the weapon to bear against its original user. A look of befuddlement was all he managed before she painted the wall behind him with his guts like a morbid Pollock painting. Working the pump as she ran, she sprinted towards the dorm windows.
Shell jumped through the aperture like a mail slot, knocking the screen away like a cheap toy. The gawping darkness of the jungle offered a welcome reprieve from the carnage behind her. Without her phone, she would have to find other ways to call for help, but she doubted anyone would come in time. Cradling the weapon like a security blanket, she moved towards the jungle as another firearm erupted in the night. The next thing she realized, she was tumbling to the ground as her heart raced and warm blood trickled across her fingers from blood hole in her chest.
For a moment, Shell struggled to raise her own shotgun, but her fingers failed to respond. Each thump of her heart spilled more of her crimson blood across the muddy ground, as the instants passed and an unseen gunman advanced. She struggled to find the man who had shot her, hoping to at least haunt his wretch memories before she died. A flashlight turned on as a beam scanned across the edge of the jungle. Before it descended upon her, she could have swarm she saw orange reflective orbs in the night.
Despite a surprisingly serene peace about her imminent demise, Shell could not help but instinctively raise her hand in front of her face as a result of the blinding light. The gunman before her racked his pump to chamber a fresh round while looking away as if to shout something within the building. A split second later, a shadow descended upon the would be assassin from a canopy as dark as the void between the stars.
The gunman's body was crushed like a brittle twig. Forcing herself backwards, Shell saw an unmistakably humanoid form but knew immediately it was not human. Golden eyes reflected the light of a full and gibbous moon. A hirsute mane the color of the night sky covered a formerly human face and arms. Her gaze shifted towards the creature's central body, which still wore the disconcertingly normal garb of a brown leather vest and loose shirt. Hairy arms characterized by mighty thews with the thickness of a tree terminated in finger-length talons dripping with fresh blood. The most terrifying moment for her was when it raised a single carnage-moistened finger up to its lips as commanding her to silence.
Shell would have reacted with abject terror in any other situation, but something within caused her to loosen her grip on the shotgun. She was unsure if it was terror caused by the realization the creature was intelligent, the surrender of her motor system to her imminent mortality, or a combination of both. She bore no doubts that if she could pull the trigger, it would only hasten her end. The adrenaline surprised pain had now advanced to blinding agony. As the creature's head lowered, she felt the warm moisture from its nostrils upon her skin like the hot breath of a hungry jackal.
The fetid smell was the last thing Shell recalled before teeth like daggers sank into her neck. She welcomed it not as a gesture of euthanasia, but of merciful empowerment. Instead of fading to the serene oblivion of personal extinction, she felt a wave of empowerment relieve the excruciating suffering of earlier moments. She faded in and out of consciousness, alternating between the now silent jungle and calm introspection. As her focus returned, senses from the rest of her body responded like lost ships. In particular, she noticed the hand atop her chest felt that the flow of blood was stemmed.
The absence of the creature caused Shell the temptation to dismiss the whole episode as some surreal hallucination. Perhaps the gunshot was not the mortal wound she imagined it was, and her brain had projected some traumatic imagery as her senses were overwhelmed in pain. While she could barely move her limbs or body to any useful degree, her eyes searched nearby for any confirmation of the event. She did not have to search far, for the nearby mangled corpse of the gunman and the trail of something massive crashing through the jungle foliage were apparent.
With a cursory comfort provided by physical evidence that she was not crazy, Shell did not yet bother to rationalize what she had seen. The shouting and footsteps now coming from within the dormitory grew louder and more intense, as the cacophony of gunfire and screaming had ended. Her mind now concerned with the other apex predator that undoubtedly would find her shortly, she struggled to reach the shotgun she had dropped. She planned to grab the weapon and crawl into the undergrowth, finding a nice dark niche to hide until they had left. Little doubt in her mind remained that the creature was their intended prey.
Shell labored to extend her hand towards the nearby shotgun, yet it might have been trying to raise a drawbridge with one hand for the difficulty she perceived. Whatever the creature had done to her, she had yet to recover her full strength, if such a thing were event possible. Just as her hand fell upon the strap of the nearby weapon, a steel-toed black leather boot came crashing down upon her forearm. She forced herself to stop from crying out.
"Hey, boss, got a live one!" the man shouted in an enigmatic accent that was most assuredly not Montoyan. "This one's got bite marks."
"Good work, boys! We've got an infected one over here," said the voice that could only be their commander. "The original Tango got away, but we're all about to become very rich."
"You're coming with us," the gunman said as he leveled his shotgun at Shell's face. The blinding flashlight beneath the barrel caused her to squint in trying to see the face of her captors. While she could not make out the face of the first gunman, she could see the visage of the approaching commander. His eyes were dark blue like the forsaken depths and his sharp nose were unimpressive compared to the way his platinum hair eerily shimmered in the moonlight. He wore a camo vest full of pouches over an olive green shirt with khaki pants, far more informal than the fully equipped commando she had expected.
"Maybe we should try flushing them into populated areas in the future," he said, thinking sadistically aloud. "We might ensure more fresh infections that way."
Shell was unable to vocalize any commands as her prior wave of euphoria left her completely. No longer buoyed by adrenaline, fatigue dragged her back towards the depths of unconsciousness. On the verge of blacking out, she thought she saw two golden orbs deep in the jungle that she translated a mournful and helpless inability to help her. From the number of armed men that began to gather around her, she had already forgave the creature when she succumbed to the darkness.