Word Count: 971
He ignored the frustration that percolated silently in the back of his mind. Already, his little group was growing. The tedium of his future loomed ahead of him and he felt exhausted and defeated – and he hadn’t even entered the battle. He was barely skirting the edges, he reminded himself, and pushed down the bloodlust for a few more hours.
Losing the demons was easy; not losing his new companions in the meantime proved to be the more challenging task. Judah could feel Mikah staring holes into the back of his head, but he paid it no attention. Mikah was a boy, a child compared to Judah, and he had about as much concern for Mikahs wrath as he would an infants. He led them silently to his safe house and let them inside. Impatiently, he discarded his duffle bags against the far wall and headed to the coolers.
When he finally returned to the open area, where he’d shoved all the registers and carts to either side of the room, he passed out a few bottles of water and some granola bars. Inwardly, he was tabulating the new factors in his situation. When had he decided to begin collecting pets? The people looking at him would do nothing except slow him down, right? All of his instincts screamed that he needed to flee, that he needed to let them find their own way. Only the strongest would survive the war, whether he carried their weight or not, he reminded himself. But the press of her hazel eyes on him held him in the room.
Her presence felt like an anchor in the sea; and no matter how hard the wind blew or how fierce the rain came down, he would not be moved.
He shook off the unfamiliar imagery and said, “We need to rest, gather supplies, and leave before dawn.” A fractured reflection of light blossomed and vanished as he checked his watch. “We have exactly nine hours before we leave.”
“What are we following this guy for?” Mikah did not hold back the distrust in his tone, or the dissatisfaction that contorted his expression. His hand reached out for her, his fingertips grazing her elbow.
A little possessive, Judah thought, but kept it to himself.
“I think he can protect us,” she answered, and though her tone was uncomplicated with emotion, there was a weight behind her words.
“We don’t need this guy in order to be safe, Tara. Don’t you trust me anymore?”
“I’m not sure we can do it alone, Mikah. I think things are getting worse.”
“We’ve survived this far,” he challenged, his eyes darting to Judah with loaded suspicion hot in his eyes.
Tara hesitated for an instant before responding, “Not all of us have survived.”
“How can we know if we can trust him? What if he’s one of them?”
Judah was certain it was an option anyone would have considered, and instead of being offended, he simply cocked his head with minor curiosity. His eyes travelled over to Tara, studying her expression. The way she almost physically fumbled for the words.
“I’ve seen him kill demons,” she answered, her hazel eyes flicking to Judah only once. “Demons don’t kill each other.”
Judah smirked. Yes, they did, he thought.
“That’s nonsense, Tara! He could be playing sides!”
Valid point, Judah mused, careful to keep his expression stoic. He didn’t know what he found so amusing about their quarrel, but for the time being, it was simply entertaining.
There was a standstill then and the tension permeated throughout the room. Judah realized Tara was keeping her knowledge to herself – that she was protecting him. An odd turn of the tables, he thought, and debated showing Mikah exactly how she could know he was no well-disguised demon.
He shrugged off his jacket and began to tug off his t-shirt. Rolling his neck until he heard the satisfying round of cracks and pops, he shook out any tension in his arms. He glanced at Mikah but his gaze did not linger; instead, he caught Tara’s eyes and held them.
He stretched his spine back, straining the muscles nestled against it, and rolled forward. The flesh of his shoulder blades tore and bled as he flexed muscles that human bodies didn’t have. Biting back a howl of pain, he focused all of his attention on keeping his eyes open, not breaking their silent connection. As the feathers broke free of his epidermis and the ligaments holding them down it felt like a fresh wind on a scorching summer day; as if pressure was slowly being released from his body. His wings stretched, the feathers twitching and covered in his own blood.
“I will get you both to the nearest safe zone,” Judah said as the pain receded from his body, his voice stoic and detached. “After that, you’re on your own. I have things to attend to of greater importance than babysitting. Eat, drink, and sleep; I’ll wake you when it is time to move.”
Without a cursory glance back, he moved to sort the weaponry in his duffle bags, laying it all out on the open floor and inspecting each piece with a single-minded focus: perfection. He oiled and cleaned and polished for hours, his motions mechanical, almost disinterested, his wings rustling gently every now and then with an unconscious flick or tremble. The dedication of repeating the same acts for most of his life showed on his face; the way he screwed his eyebrows up, knotting his forehead as he narrowed his vision to smaller and smaller pieces. For a long time, he paid no attention to the humans no more than ten yards away from him; their conversation as quiet and inaudible as the buzz and hum of the flies circling about the room.