A small bell rings once as Ash opens the door to the small convenient store. The place is empty except for the cashier, who is intent on a phone game. He doesn’t look up to the new customer, so Ash keeps his hoodie up and strolls toward the humming fridges toward the back. The multi colored options hold no interest, so he moves slowly to a rack of chips. He contemplates buying the Doritos, until he sees a green bag of plantain chips. It has been too long since he’s had a good bag of plantain chips.
Snack in hand, he purses his lips at the fridges. He is thirsty, but these choices are just not doing it for him. That is when he eyes the fountain drinks. Right beside it is a slushie machine. Ash’s mouth waters. Yes, that’s it.
Cherry, he decides before he gets there to see the selection. His favorite flavor is cherry. But his luck has run out as he reads the note with poor penmanship: “Out of Order.” He grudgingly takes a medium sized cup and fills it with the second best, Pina Colada. Ash glances at the cashier as he unwraps a straw, the one with a spoon-like opening at one end, and sticks it in the slush. He takes a large sip as he makes his way to the counter.
“You’re out of Cherry slush,” Ash says, placing his cup and plantain chips before the cashier, who places his phone aside to ring him up. The man doesn’t answer, and Ash raises an eyebrow.
“Your total is three dollars and sixty-six cents,” the man says. Ash digs into his jeans pocket and takes out four dollar bills. He hands them to the cashier, who asks if he wants a bag. Ash declines.
The man turns to the cash register and presses a few buttons. Just as the cash drawer pops out, Ash hops over the counter, his feet landing onto the man’s chest. They stumble against the wall full of cigarettes, the cashier’s growl vibrating through the soles of Ash’s sandals. Before he can get a grip on him, Ash’s teeth sink into his throat and tears it open. His hands finish the job and the man’s head pops off his body.
Ash spits out a mouthful of blood, and swears at the mess on the floor, the cigarettes, blood, and fallen Pina Colada slush dirtying his feet. With an annoyed sigh, Ash takes out a small flip phone and presses the first speed dial. “Coast is clear,” he utters, just as two men enter the room from a back door of the store. ********** he says as they stop and stare at him in all his bloody-mouthed glory. He snaps the phone shut and smiles before giving them a small, bloodied-hand wave.
He attacks before they do. His back breaks, his arms and legs give out. Mind-numbing pain rolls through his veins, the world is dark, and when he opens his eyes, everything is in black, white, and gray. His large brown claws climb on the counter as his legs hoists himself over it. The Shift happens within a mere second, which is enough for the men to grab their bearings on the situation. One is already running around the store back toward the door they came through, and the other faces the large bear in front of him.
Ash stands on his muscled legs and towers over his first opponent, a blond, by three feet. The man punches the bear in its stomach. Ash roars and swipes the blond aside with his claw, the man’s body colliding with a rack of cheap sunglasses. The bear bounds toward the escaping man on all fours, and roars as his mouth opens and clamps around the man’s right thigh just before he opens the door. He tosses him against the slushie machine, which explodes in sparks and melting slush.
The blond jumps on the bear’s back and nearly sinks its teeth into its shoulder before Ash stands up, grabs the man by his hair, and pulls him over his head and onto the floor. With a deep growl, the bear’s claws sink into the blond’s neck and tears his head off his shoulders. The bear shifts his body to the broken slushie machine to find the man gone, racing toward the front entrance.
Before he can escape, the doors open and a huge white hawk flies through the threshold, clenching the man’s head in its claws. The man screams as he is lifted off the linoleum floor and tossed toward the bear, who swipes through the air, Ash’s claws raking cleanly through his neck like a knife through butter. The body slumps on the ground and the head falls on top of a shelf full of overpriced bread.
The hawk settles on the counter, its large black eyes blinking at the brown bear before the store is flooded with men and women holding titanium machetes and an assortment of animals: wild cats, hunting birds, and a pack of wolves, each oversized and deadly.
The hawk is replaced by a naked woman who hops off the counter and turns to the bear for instruction. After a moment of pain, Ash is also human once again. He turns his attention to the group of about eighty packed into every iota of the store. Despite the crowd, every man, woman, and beast is silent.
“We’ve made quite a ruckus in here,” he says, “so I imagine they already know of our presence. Our element of surprise is quickly fading, so we must move in now.” He turns to the woman. “Sebastian?”
“Following,” she answers.
He nods. “Grace and I will lead. Once we penetrate the Red Room, you all know what to do. Remember the purpose: clear the place out, room by room, level by level. Leave no leech alive, protect the girls. Understood?” The crowd nod and growl in agreeance. “Good. Let’s go.”
Ash shifts into a massive dusty gray canine and Grace shifts into her Main, a white cheetah. She leads the group through the mess of collapsed aisles and crushed convenient items to the door in the back. Her head turns and sapphire feline eyes find Ash’s mismatched ones. He nods, his ears twitching for sounds beyond the walls.
Grace growls once and Ash braces himself as Thomas, a shifter in human form, swings the door open. The corridor is long, windy, and empty, doorless, windowless, with burgundy marble floors and black painted walls. Ash bounds after the prowling cheetah, a bright contrast to the darkness of these halls, for at least a quarter mile.
The hallway is supposed to end with two gargantuan bouncers before mahogany double doors that lead into the Red Room, according to their source, however the doors are left unattended. Ash expected that much; if the brawl in the convenient store did not tip them off, their lively arrival through the hall would have. It is difficult to conceal the natural sounds of animals, even more so on marble floors that would scream if a feather brushed over the smooth surface.
This time, Grace does not wait for Thomas to open the doors; rather, with a rambunctious roar, she collides with the doors, tearing both off their hinges. The room is pitch black and larger than the narrow hall, but seems much smaller filled with twenty or so vampires. Bloody security.
Ash wastes no time; he follows Grace’s lead and takes the first leech he sees down, his paws latching onto the female’s chest as both shifter and vampire go down. Her arms wrap around Ash’s shoulders; her fingers dig into his fur and her nails try to peel his skin away, but it is too tough. His jaw unhinges as his teeth tear at the side of her neck and with a growl, he rips her head off her shoulders.
Blood drips from his snout as he consumes the battle around him. Shifters in human form with glistening machetes hack and dodge their enemies attacks, hawks fly above the heads of all to the back of the room, directing him where he must be. Ash takes down one more leech on his way through the crowd, and finds Grace has already continued down the lavish double staircase located at the back of the room, the lobby. Most of the shifters follow, as a few are left behind to finish with the first wave of security.
The first floor is already filled with customers with emotions ranging from confusion to rage. The latter welcome the crowd of enemies with bloodied mouths and excited snarls; the former are the first to go, falling easily under the chaos. The place is pungent with the smell of fresh human blood, the scent shoving itself down Ash’s throat. He tries not to gag, and rather focuses on the dizzy vampire with hooded eyelids that stumbles out of his room. He leaves his head in the midst of the turmoil as he dodges vampires or takes down the ones that latch onto him on his way past door after door to the next staircase.
He and Grace continue down the same marble steps to the second level, and it is the first floor repeated. The screams of the girls beyond the thresholds of the rooms reaches Ash’s ears, and he yearns to go to them, to save them, but he knows his mission, which does not include search and rescue. He prays that none are harmed, but he knows it is impossible.
The third floor is more empty with confusion. Grace attacks ruthlessly, clawing through every leech and leaving the ones that get away to Ash’s claws. They work like a seamless team, paving their way through the floor for the second wave of shifters that follows the unit he and Grace leads.
The Red Room seems like a never ending **** with identical layers that reach the core of the earth, the source said. Ash cannot help but agree, for the fourth floor flashes by like dangerous deja vu.
Ash stops for just a moment at the end of this staircase on the fifth floor. What lies behind the door at the end of this last hall is the reason why they are all here. This is Ash’s mission.
His eyes find Grace’s tail, which disappears beyond a room to his right. With a growl, he chooses the third door to his left. The wood cracks beneath his weight and he expects the sound of a frightened young girl, but it never comes. The vampire is fastened to a limp, panting, and naked girl, his clothed body so tense he does not react to the loud disturbance, and then when he does, only slowly. Ash allows a brief second for realization to dawn upon those eyes, black like a snake, before he attacks. The vampire’s hands fumble against his chest as he tries to push against the tenacious canine. The girl’s thudding heartbeat, slow, too slow, echoes in Ash’s ears as his claws sink easily into the leech’s shoulders, skin and bones like butter. This one is unusually weak, which probably explains the girl’s state. As the head thuds against the ground, Ash turns to leaves, when the girl’s heartbeat stops. He averts his eyes from her revealed body as she takes her last breath, each paw weighed down with stone as he exits with a renewed sense of bloodlust.
His enemies fall down left and right, the taste and smell of human blood creating a rage within Ash he has not felt in years. Just as he is ordered, he quickly clears the floor for Sebastian. As he leaves a room with a deep gash in his shoulder, he finds the floor flooded with more men and women with machetes. A good sign–the floors above should be close to clear. Sebastian should make it through without much hassle.
As if clockwork, Ash halts in his tracks as a black shadow appears at the top of the staircase. Its mane is long and silky around his strong, serious face, his entire body is cloaked in midnight black fur. He takes each step with deliberation, his tail twitching from left to right as he descends. Ash watches with respectful awe as his long ebony claws click against the marble floor at the bottom. Every shifter Sebastian passes stops to watch; they completed their part of the mission, and now, this is what they have been waiting for. Sebastian.
Ash stands beside Grace, whose white fur is stained with red; her hind leg has four deep scratches, but she appears otherwise unharmed. Sebastian stops just before the two unit leaders and turns his steady gaze to his injured shoulder. He proceeds past them, and halts before the door at the end of the hall, the last Red Room. He waits, and Ash takes a deep breath before he tears through the door, ripping it from its hinges with a deep growl that vibrates every bone in his body.
The chamber, unlike the previous stark rooms, is richly decorated. A vast king-sized bed lies beyond double marble steps, a table lined with food and lit candles sits upon an ornate burgundy rug surrounded by mahogany chairs.
A naked man is asleep on the bed, a naked woman discarded onto the floor. As the door crashes against the marble floors, its wood splintering as it is smashed in half by Ash’s weight, the man sits up unsteadily. He growls at the interruption, his tired, yet beautiful face twisted in anger. It takes less than a second for the vampire to process the situation at his threshold: a huge gray canine growling on his broken door, the white cheetah and chestnut-furred wolf prowling alongside the left and right perimeter of the room, and finally the midnight black lion standing in the doorway, a fierce, triumphant look shining from his eyes. The anger on the leech’s face is replaced by an expression of pure fear.
“Sebastian,” he whispers, his eyes widen in horror, and at his name, the lion stalks forward.
The man’s movements are slow, yet he still tries to escape. Ash allows him to stumble past him, following direct orders not to get involved with this one vampire. The leech runs toward the space between Sebastian and the exit, but Sebastian easily stops him in his path. He jumps gracefully onto the vampire, his claws tearing holes through his shoulders. Sebastian roars into the shaking vampire’s face, pinning him to the ground. The room is silent in the aftermath, all except the shaky breaths of the lion’s prey. A pool of human blood seeps around his pale body as the two stare at each other, fire and ice.
Sebastian lowers his head and snarls at the leech, baring his long fangs. “Sebastian, no! Please,” the vampire begs just as the lion tears its heart out with its teeth. Ash watches as the lion spits the red muscle out of his mouth, and the leech falls silent.
The lion’s mane is riddled with red blood, and when the lion is no longer a lion, but a tall man, the blood remains in his tangled hair. “Finish them off,” says Sebastian, his eyes on the unconscious vampire at his feet. “Collect the girls, dead or alive.” He turns away from the attentive shifters, his bare back glistening with specks of blood. “Burn this place to the ground.”