Ryan ran. This was too much like being in firefights and as bombs sundered the earth around him in sprays of brick, blood and sand. He struggled to control his breathing, his chest burning with strain, the thick iron taste of blood filling his mouth as his lungs pumped like bellows, hands starting to go numb from the cold. This could not be happening, it was insane.
He thrashed through the heavy growth, instincts pressing him to use his environment against the heavier men who ran behind him, dodging through tight gaps in bushes and low hanging branches. He ignored the way the thorns scrapped at him and tore at his hair and clothes, leaving thin trails of fire across his skin. He pushed out into the next clearing, trying to cross the open area at a sprint, hoping against fate that he would make the other side before the men did. The snap of a rifle somewhere behind him jerked him into a low weaving zig zag hoping to throw off their aim.
Feet pounded behind him as the men reached the clearing, immediately spreading out to try and out flank him. His instincts warred with his military training, pushing him to move into the shadows, to double back and force them to lose his scent. Blood trickled down his face from where a lucky blow had spit his cheek, split his lip. He panted, trying to force his battered mind to think beyond the animal instincts driving him. This was not a game he could win.
The sudden punch of a dart slamming into his back forced a cry from his throat as he fell, hands scraping in the dirt as he tried to right himself. The men quickly closed in, a second dart taking him in the thigh as he crouched. A deep rumbling growl filled the space between them even as his world tilted, the man shifting into indistinct black voids with piercing eyes, the drug finally pulling him into oblivion as the first blows fell.
Three months earlier…
Ryan gathered up the stack of paperwork, brochures, and his old patched duffel bag trying to ignore how naked he felt stepping out of the doctor’s office. It was different stepping out into an unknown situation without the hundred brothers in arms that’d had his back for the last decade. This was not marching out into the desert sun in the same uniform as every other man and woman around him.
He didn’t bother offering his hand to the doctor and the doctor did not bother escorting him out, already dismissing him as no longer his problem. He made his slow way through the corridors in a daze trying to dismiss the sudden wish for his gun to be pressing a firm line into his thigh. Stepping outside into the cold New York air was shocking after months of artificially filtered and treated hospital air.
It was cold and wet, normal spring weather for New York, the wind whipping through the streets and cutting into his jacket. His last posting had been in a desert so he didn’t have much in the way of cold weather clothing with him. At least he got a tan out of it, he thought with a small smirk looking at the pale New Yorker’s he was passing.
The family lawyer had come to visit while he was still stuck in a crowded ward in the on base hospital. Mr. Sanders had strode into the ward like he was coming to set fire to the place, arrogantly demanding to see “Mr. Arrington.”. Ryan had watched with amusement as the nurse at the desk took her time going through the paperwork to announce which bed was his.
He watched the lawyer approach trying quell the instinctive urge to straighten up in bed. His arm was still strapped to his chest with tight bandages, white lines of linen wrapping his ribs where they had been broken in the attack. He forced his breathing slow and even as the man strode to the end of the bed, pulling out several packets of paper, both of them ignoring the eyes of the staff and other wounded soldiers.
“Ryan Colton Arrington?” he asked, raising one eyebrow in a questioning manner when he stopped at Ryan’s bed.
“Nice to see you remember me, Sanders. How’s the old man doing? Still killing himself with fifty year old scotch and cigars?” Ryan said as neutrally as he could. He knew he looked different from the college student that had been kicked out of his family home when he announced that he was joining the marines. He had gained muscle and the last bit of height he lacked while serving, his normally dark hair cut short and sun bleached almost auburn.
“Your father is quite well. He was very upset to hear of your injury.” The lawyer said with a wince, eyeing the expanse of bandages covering the younger man.
“Surprising, I would have thought he would jump for joy to hear I was leaving the Marines.” Ryan offered blandly.
“Oh, I imagine he was quite ecstatic.” Sanders said with a grimace. “However, the information on your change in status was not taken quite as well.” he said with a glance at the red dog tags displayed proudly amongst the white lining his chest.
“I would imagine not.” Ryan said amicably. He merely waited, watching the older man until he finally gave up the game in exasperation and spat out why he was there. Ryan had never been a fan of power plays and had learned quickly how to shut them down. After growing up with his father, this lawyer was easy.
“You have been cut off completely, disowned from the Arrington line. All assets that were part of your inheritance have been reclaimed and your father asks that you never return to the manor. He has no wish to see you.”
“Good for him.” Ryan said, his face stony and calm. “What about Payton, is she joining the old man in setting my childhood knickknacks ablaze on the back terrace?”
“Your sister has been away for school and has not returned to the manor for several years.”
“Good for her.” Ryan said gruffly, trying to not wince as he shifted positions, he was propped up against the head of the bed on a too thin hospital pillow.
“Here are your copies of the paperwork.” The other man said stiffly, handing over a stack of folders.
“Thanks.” Ryan mumbled, thumbing through the stack one handed as he ignored the other man until he finally left with a huff.
Yeah, it was childish but his family was not exactly known for their level headedness outside of business. Immediately a rush of voices filled the room as the soldiers and staff started speculating on how much money he had just lost. Ryan gripped his tags for a moment, glad the lawyer had not noticed the signet ring that had fallen behind them. It was one of the few things from his family that he kept.
“You alright there, Ari?” One of the others asked. He was one of the few men still willing to talk to Ryan after word got out of his status as a Were.
“Fine, Jones. I haven’t see the old man in ten years if not more. Getting axed from the family doesn’t mean much after that much time. I just want to see where my sister is on the fence.”
“Understandable, hope she’s the sensible kind.”
“No idea. Just going to have to see.”
“Luck with that.” he said with a grimace. “Family is always crazy, no matter how normal they seem.”
Mutters of “Amen to that.” and a few other variations rang out around the room before one of the nurses called for quiet, advising everyone to try and rest up.
Ryan shifted to lay down on his cot, tossing the papers to one side. Nice of his father to send the family lawyer for a visit to inform him he was not only discharged from the Marine and still ragged from infection and injury but he was also disowned from his family and written out of the will. All of it because he had been infected while doing his job, protecting the soldiers on his team. He was the only member of his squad to survive, the rest dying from the virus or from their injuries long before his fever broke.
One of the middle eastern warlords had some how weaponized the virus that caused lycanthropy. There was a small population of natural Were who lived and worked among the rest of them.They were a minority however since most people exposed to the virus did not survive. You had a better chance of survival if you were given what the soldiers called “the cure”, a shot of hormones and virus that had been modified to reject the changes it was trying to wreck on your body.
Ryan had not been that lucky, you had to get the cure within an hour of infection to be cured completely. It had been hours after the attack before he had been found. So he was not cured, he was Were, and Were could not serve in the military. He would have been discharged anyway considering how messed up his shoulder and side were. The cure had not stopped his infection only tempered it so the fever did not burn him out and he survived. For the rest of his life he would wear red dog tags that marked him as an infected soldier.
He had spent much of his childhood and teenage years alone. Disappearing into the woods surrounding his family estate had been his getaway from his drunken father and his fists or his emotionally absent mother who spent most of her life in a happy Valium stupor. He had been there for his sister until she had been old enough to start running on her own, disappearing to friends houses and extended trips abroad before she was even in high school. He refused to consider the scars lining his back that he could have run from but knew the fists and cane would fall on his sister or mother if he did. They had needed him so he had stayed.
He took up hunting and riding horses as a way to stay outside longer, farther away from the house and his family. On the weekends and nights his sister was out of the house he would disappear into the trails lining the woods, running until his legs gave out. He brought back doves and rabbits for the cooks to fuss over so they could not say he was off goofing around. See, he was doing something useful, hunting. And if he often thought of his father at the other side of his gun or bow, well, no one ever knew but himself and God.
While his sister lost herself in the nonstop parties of the young and rich, Ryan was pushing himself to do the best he could in his first year of college. He studied and worked to maintain a flawless grade point average while quietly researching his options. He knew his father was expecting elite law schools or medical schools in his future which only pushed him to reject those tracts all the harder.
He had been in ROTC in high school and been offered several scholarships because of his high marksmanship scores. He had won quite a few awards at the local competitions his high school went to and even won the regional event his senior year. He quietly made his inquiries and gather up offers and possible placements for the next year while trying to decide how to approach his father with the change.
In the end it was taken out of his hands when an over eager recruiter called his Father hoping to get his support in pressuring Ryan to sign on as soon as possible. The resulting argument had lasted for hours before his Father finally snapped and ordered him to refuse the offer or he would never be allowed to set foot on the grounds again. Ryan had been too angry to enjoy the brief look of shock that graced his Father’s face as he had snarled his agreement and snapped an about face, striding out of the room, ignoring whatever else was called out after him.
He finished his semester, took his exams and enlisted the next day. He got the occasional call from his sister who had moved in with a friend for her final year of high school as he went through boot camp and his first deployment but the contacts dwindled once he reached his second year abroad. Beyond cards for the holidays and a care package for his birthday each year he had not seen his sister in years. The handful of times he had been in the US for leave he had been unable to track her down.
Ryan realized that he’d been walking in the rain aimlessly for some time. His shoulder burned from having to balance the duffel, the scar tissue still red and tender against his pale skin rubbed painfully against his wet shirt. He had been sick and delirious with fever for over a month before he was transferred back to the states. He had been forced to stay in the hospital another two months until he went through two successful changes and demonstrated that he was in his right mind once the change was complete.
Some of those who were infected with the weaponized virus fell into the change and went mad, lost in blood lust and the animal mind. That was how his squad had been attacked. The enemy troops had taken soldiers prisoner and infected them, once they were out of their mind with hunger and pain they had goaded the broken animals at the base and the unknowing soldiers within. They attacked everything in sight with a heart beat.
The Were were stronger than normal humans and their claws and fangs carved through Kevlar and bone like it was tissue paper, like throwing a tiger against someone wielding a knife. They had accelerated healing meaning it took major damage to take a Were down. The snippets Ryan remembered were like a bad B rated horror movie, grotesque twisted forms, half wolf, half human lurching through the camp leaving a trail of body parts and blood in their wake.
A Were in control of the change was a fearsome fighter but an out of control one was a monster. Thanks to the use of the virus as a weapon several senators and congressmen were pushing for more restrictions to were a Were could work and live, almost to the point of them being forced to live in controlled areas away from civilians, essentially concentration camps. While Were rights were not a large issue considering how few even survived the infection many other minority groups were up in arms over yet another group of people being treated as less than human.
A few of the brochures that had been pushed at him as he was discharged were to Were friendly hotels and apartment complexes, all on the worse side of town, far away from the middle and upper class people that would complain and have money to back those complaints. Most were in Brownsville-East, South Bronx, and Bed-Stuy. The rest had been rather comical attempts by humans to explain how his senses and body had changed with the infection. In truth beyond a massively increased sense of smell and a new ease of seeing things in low light he felt more comfortable in his skin than he had been in years.
Ryan made his way into the first subway stop he came across, deciding to head towards Brownsville and hope for the best. Using one of the free pass cards he had been given at the hospital. He watched some of the other patrons move away from him with amusement. He was underweight, exhausted, and still healing from severe injuries. The last thing he would classify himself as was a threat. Maybe they just saw another broken veteran who was liable to snap into PTSD at a moments notice. It just made him even more tired. It was yet another stereotype he would be fighting as he tried to find somewhere to stay.
He rode the train from one stop to another for what seemed like hours before he exited the subway and started the long walk to the first hotel. Three hotels later, he was starting to lose hope. He was finally was shown to a tiny, grubby room at the back of the building after hours of walking. He would not be able to afford to stay here long on his tiny pension but at least it was somewhere to sleep tonight.
He staggered to the bed, dropping his bags to one side and went to take a shower in the lukewarm water of the smallest shower he had ever used and considering he was a marine that was saying something. At least afterward he no longer reeked of antiseptic and betadine from the hospital. He hadn’t been sure that he would ever get the burn of the cleansers out of his nose. It was still early in the day but he collapsed into bed, exhaustion dragging him down into dark murky dreams of gunfire and sand.