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    The first thing to strike the trio, was the smell.

    Or the stench of this place. It went beyond horrible. It was ghastly! Putrefaction, and the worst that any of them had ever smelled it.

    Concentrated in an enclosed space... fermented to a truly vile concentration by the summer's heat... It was a smell so bad that it was almost a physical force.

    Even Akio's gourd was heard to be rising. "Watashi o okasu," he was heard to gasp out softly.

    As bad as the smell was, though, and it was bad, Adrian could smell what they had smelled in the truck stop, and in the manager's office, from where that creature had exploded out upon them.

    The smell of freshly tanned, brand new leather. It was so thick, that it was almost overpowering the other stench.

    Ember of course recognized the smell, too. It had been burned into his memory when those creatures had attacked he and his remaining squad mate. It was what the creatures smelled like!

    Judging from just the sheer intensity of the smell, there must have been dozens of the creatures in here. Perhaps even hundreds!

    Suddenly, Akio was joining up with them.

    "They will all be where the smell is coming from," he said quietly. "Near the back of the store, where the fresh meats and dairy used to be."

    Both knew that that must be where the stench of putrefaction was coming from. Meat, probably a couple of tons of it for a store this size, and all of it left to go bad. Milk products and seafood adding their own brands of stench to it, too.

    "If we stay away from those areas where they sold these things, and out of view of those areas, we should be ok."

    He then placed a steadying hand on Adrian's shoulder.

    "You probably know the layout of these stores better than I. Lead us to where you think the can goods will be. We will retrieve only as much as we can carry of those for now. I think it would be very unwise to spend any more time in here than what is strictly necessary. We can seek the other things that are needed elsewhere."
    *****



    Tobias jerked awake. All at once, he almost sitting straight up in bed in sheer panic. It would only be seeing Mickey's kind face, that would have stopped the panic. The calm of the environs, the calm tone of conversation that he'd woken up to, between Geoff and Mickey, too.

    And the freshness of that fruity smell? What was that?!

    Tobias' stomach reminded him in that very instant, of how hungry he was. It would be only reflex, the need for what was in that glass, but he would reach for it and jerk it from Geoff's hand if Geoff let him.
    Rick Canaan's Signature
    A balanced diet is an ice cream cone in each hand - Rick Canaan

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      The very moment Tobias felt something in his hand, it was like a person stuck in quicksand finding a rope to pull themselves free. In spite of his weakness, the horse very nearly threw himself upward, his grip on the cup as strong as he could muster.

      Fruit? Fruit! He'd very nearly gone feral in that split second, lips wrapped over the straw offered up to him. His nightmares were thankfully gone, but he was in an unfamiliar place. He looked around blindly for a moment, his breathing soon normalizing.

      He felt...like he was someplace safe. For the first time in a year, he felt safe.

      His voice was, no joke meant, hoarse. He sipped at the drink offered to him, looking to Mickey with hope in those eyes. He wasn't done yet.

      "...where....where are we? Where is everyone?"

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        Mickey smiled and his tail began to wag as Tobias took the drink and seemed to properly awaken at last. He looked drained, exhausted even, and his voice was scratchy, as if he'd been gargling on a scouring pad, but there was a focus coming back to him. His words weren't the feverish ramblings of when he was on the cusp of returning to them. Now he was back in proper.

        "Relax," Mickey told the horse, "we've met some new friends. This is one of them," he gestured to the fox by his side, "Geoff. And... well... this is Geoff's house."

        Mickey started to gesture around, before he realised how silly that was - Tobias had been unconscious, but he hadn't forgotten what a house was. Mickey blushed a little, hoping it was hidden by his fur.

        "As for the others, they've set off back to the mall for supplies. There's another new one with them, a soldier I think they said, but I was bit busy here helping you."

        Another blush.

        "Well, helping Geoff help you, anyway."

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          Ember would do as he was told, watching the back of the group, The smell was unbearable, and it brought memories that Ember would be happy to forget. The mall was dark and eerie "I don't like this place..." Quoted ember as he looked around for any threats "I doubt anything is still good... God knows how long ago the Refrigeration failed..." Ember whispered, his rifle had a small Tactical laser, though he had it turned off to avoid giving their position to any of those creatures, Ember's tail swayed as his ears perked up to listen for any movement Ember had one grenade left, perhaps he could kill several of the creatures if he got lucky, but he thought it was best to avoid fighting a horde. It took most of his ammo just to kill them. "Can we stop by the gun section...?" Ember quietly asked

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            Adrian recoiled when the smell registered, a hand snapping up to his snout as he struggled to not vomit. He was nonetheless wracked by dry heaves for a moment.

            "Gah!" he groaned once he got them under control, "By the Ancestors..."

            He steadied himself, bringing the shotgun back up.

            "I'm all right," he assured them, "I was overcome by the smell."

            He nodded when Akio told him to find the canned goods.He took a moment to scan the tops of the shelves, where signs telling customers what was in the aisles would be in Australian supermarkets, before slowly leading them through the store towards where he thought he remembered the canned goods being.

            "Canned food can stay good indefinitely if it's properly sealed," he reminded Ember, "As for guns... I don't think Walmart has a license to sell firearms or ammunition."
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            Insatiable Curiosity

            Major Leon Stormstrider

            Varatyr Scorchtalon

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              Geoff's ears perked up and his eyes widened at Tobias sudden jerking upwards. He was expecting the horse to come to, but not with such violence. As his startlement subsided though, his ears relaxed and his tail started to slowly wag. It was definitely good to see that he'd been able to do some good here.

              "Geoff Carlton." he introduced himself and handed Tobias a full glass in exchange for the one he'd have no doubt emptied by now. "Nice to meet you. Take it easy, your friends have gone across the way to hunt for supplies and whatever food they can find." he paused, motioning around them, "This place is about as safe as I can make it. It was an industrial building and we're on the second floor. Metal doors and I've got a perimeter of traps for the turned. We'll have to move eventually, but for now, we've got some breathing room. The nice thing about adopting an industrial building that was up to environmental codes is the air-scrubbers work really well. No tempting smells for the turned to latch onto."

              He looked over to Mickey then. "So what are your plans going forward? Do you think you might need the skills of an old Silicon Valley engineer? I'm sure I can come in handy." he said, then paused for a brief moment, "Besides which, the fact we've run into each other and found so many others so far, gives me hope we're not an isolated group. Chances are, all over the world there are groups like us getting together, and if we can get the power and networks up again, we could restore communication."

              Geoff's head shook slowly then and his ears flattened as he thought of this, "But maybe we should focus on getting through the week, first."
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              “Just when you think humanity has found the limits of stupid, they go and ratchet up the standard by another notch.” - Bob

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                It took a moment for Tobias to finally lie himself back down, resting his head against the pillow. It really did feel comforting to know he could sleep without worry. The drink was helping him relax some, but that solid food was going to be key to keeping him going for the time being.

                He coughed out, looking up to the pair. "Tobias...and thank you for this." He tried to nod, but was somehow too weak to do so.

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                  It was nice to see Tobias seeming to come back to life.

                  "You gave us quite a scare, there. We're so well stocked at Subtropolis, I sort of forgot other survivors might not have had the same until now."

                  Then the dog turned and listened to Geoff. It was quite rousing stuff, a mini-vision of rebuilding society! It was strange though - Mickey never really thought that far ahead. Perhaps it was a side-effect of having whatever you needed whenever you wanted it. Planning ahead wasn't his strong point, not even when he played his games. Take each moment at a time, that was his approach. Geoff seemed to be more of a thinker. A dreamer.

                  Maybe that was what the world needed right now.

                  "At the moment," said the dog, "I just want to get you lot back to Subtropolis. I think you could do some great work there, and knowing that there are survivors out here will really boost everyone's morale. Plus -"

                  He paused. He'd been about to say everyone might finally think I'm good for something, but the words stuck in his throat. He coughed.

                  "Well, it'll be good for morale, anyway."

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                    It was a stench that was just impossible to get used to. It was probably the only smell in all of mother nature that was impossible to get used to. It wasn't that it was just revolting, which it was, in the extreme, but because it also tickled a primal instinct.

                    Death existed here.

                    It did help somewhat that Adrian, Akio and Ember all had the predator genome, which helped to mitigate the fear. It was part of their species' heritage. Death, raw things, gulping down offal and meat, and then the corpses left to rot under the sun for the vultures and ants to clean up. It was a smell that their subconscious minds were eventually able to begin accepting. Had Tobias been in here, though, he probably would have been piebald with terror by then, the panic Flight response trying to drive him to the nearest exit and out of there in terror-maddened rush.

                    But the trio that was in the store, had had their ancestral heritage tempered by societal demands, too. Death and killing weren't part of their day-to-day lives anymore. The only ones who had been somewhat re-indoctrinated to it, were Akio and Ember. Akio perhaps more so, from his time living in the wild these last months, but even he was unable to walk through this with anything which might be considered natural aplomb. Ember had had training in it, had perhaps even seen real combat. Had recently, and twice, the second time having seen to his last squadmate. But even so, he was having just as much trouble as Akio.

                    Whom... if the floor was able to take footprints, Akio's would be seen as only toe-impressions and perhaps only the very fronts of the balls of his feet.

                    "We will get the food items only," he hissed quietly.

                    He had diverted slightly to one side. After he was heard to say this, Adrian's and Ember's attention was drawn to him again, they both jerking it away from the gloom that awaited them in the store.

                    Akio was taking a basket-cart out of a long line of them just inside the store's entrance.

                    He got the cart free, but it came free with a clatter. Which had him wincing and pausing.

                    "I will not be able to take this smell much longer. None of us will be able to. If we remain in it for too long, we will all be made ill by it. And the creatures are in here. There may be hundreds. Every second we spend in here, there is danger of attracting their attention. We will have to find ammunition and other supplies elsewhere."

                    Bringing the cart forward, he passed it to Adrian. He was the most lightly armed of the three, and had the weapon that was easiest to bring around and use. He would be the one to push the cart.

                    "We fill this as quickly as we can and we get out of here. Ember, I will walk back to back with Adrian. You take up the rear."
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                    A balanced diet is an ice cream cone in each hand - Rick Canaan

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                      "Alright.. Got it..." Ember replied, the smell of flesh and rot was getting to him, Primitive instincts of his race tugging at him, Something that agitated Ember "Let's get the hell out of this place..." Ember said as he watched the back of the group, He didn't want to spend any more time in the Store, less something terrible happen... Ember had seen blood and death before, the death of his only surviving Teamate never left his mind... This was truly a broken world... ember thought "And try not to make any noise..." He whispered "That cart could get us all killed..." Said the wolf as he looked around the store for anything that may have spotted them "We may be able to find ammo from some of the Convoys around here..." Ember remarked "And I'm sure one may be on the outskirts... Though I'm not certan..."

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                        Adrian was on edge, partly because of he smell (which was indeed effecting him worse than the others), and partly because of their proximity to so many of the creatures. His wings were flared open and his shoes softly scuffed the floor as he moved, a sound only barely audible to even the sensitive ears of the two standing right next to him.

                        "Agreed," he replied to Akio, "Food only. Then we get out of here. We can find ammo later, at a gun shop maybe, or the convoy you mentioned Ember."

                        He winced at the sound of the cart. He agreed with Akio's reasoning for it, however; they'd never be able to carry enough in their pockets, and they needed their arms to be free to fight.

                        He carefully led the way, one hand on the shotgun, the other carefully guiding the cart to minimise the noise.

                        "Canned food... here we are," he breathed, pausing just before entering and peering down the aisle, shotgun raised and ready.
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                        Insatiable Curiosity

                        Major Leon Stormstrider

                        Varatyr Scorchtalon

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                          The fox gave a nod to Tobias. "Don't mention it. Mi casa es su casa, as they say. So you were joining up with them, hoping to go back to Subtropolis? Seems like a solid enough plan to me." he noted, then looked over to Mickey. He gave a surreptitious sniff, noting the smell of embarrassment coming from Mickey. That dog had some confidence issues, that seemed pretty plain. He'd been about to say something, in addition to that statement about Morale, then chose not to.

                          "You know..." Geoff began, taking a seat on a chair near the door, "It seems like we're all coming at this from a different perspective, with different skills and ways of doing things." he continued, tapping his lower jaw speculatively as his ears went forward in thought, "Do you ever get the sense that we're being brought together for some reason? I've never been much of a religious sort, but the last few days have seen a number of very timely coincidences happen. Either there's some sort of all-seeing deity, or maybe we're living in a simulation." he said, completely seriously. "Tweak a variable here, alter an algorithm there, and you can have a profound effect on how things unfold."

                          Geoff looked up from his thoughts, back to Tobias and Mickey, "Well, whatever this world is, I'm going to do my best to survive. We're going to have to work together, and I doubt the turned are going to continue to be as amenable as they have been so far." he intoned.

                          "I'm not sure you folks have noticed, but they seem to behave like insects. They're attracted by smell, and not just any smell, rot. That one I'm pretty sure of based on my own observation. I've also noticed that I've never been attacked just wandering about. I can't say that's a fact though, I've only got an anecdotal sample size of one to go on. I was probably just lucky, there. If you're between you and their food, though and they then see you as a threat to it, they'll be on you. I remember one time having to run into my own trap, jumping over it and hoping the turned would run into it. I was lucky, as it did, but damn, you don't want to be near them when they're riled up."

                          He looked over to Mickey again, "So, are you ready to get started on your aerial recon? I'm sure your friends might appreciate an eye in the sky. ... looking at youuuu, I can read your... erm, nevermind, want to get started?"
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                          “Just when you think humanity has found the limits of stupid, they go and ratchet up the standard by another notch.” - Bob

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                            It made sense. Ember wouldn't know. He'd had too little experience with the Infected. Only Adrian knew sound wouldn't activate them, from his experience, with Mickey, in the Pilot truck stop. Akio knew from his living in the wild for these last several months.

                            "They do not activate on sound," Akio told Ember quietly. Despite knowing they wouldn't himself, primal self-preservation instincts kept his words quiet nonetheless. "But if they spot anything moving..."

                            His bare foot touched a can that had been left on the floor. He caught it with his toes just in time to keep it from rolling away. He pushed it slowly against the base of a shelf rack, held it there with his toes until he was sure it would not roll out onto the floor again.

                            It was a can of hair spray.

                            "Do not set anything in motion and do your best to not topple anything."

                            This last part was as much for Adrian as it was for Ember.

                            The trio moved quietly through the store. They finally began nearing the canned goods aisles.

                            As they neared the first of these aisles, Adrian spotted something beyond the end of it that had every scale he had trying to stand on end.

                            One of the creatures!

                            Caught in a slim ray of sunlight, when Adrian saw it, it was prowling slowly along the meat counter at the back of the store. It appeared to have not detected them. But it was ghastly in appearance, even from what little bit Adrian was able to see of it.

                            His sudden jerking to a halt and quiet gasp, would have jerked Akio's and Ember's eyes to it too.

                            Its chest was heaving at hyper speed, like a hummingbird's after a long flight. Its skin was mottled black and brown, glistening slickly, with mangy looking patches of brown fur clinging to it here and there. It looked like it had been some kind of dog before it had become inflected, possibly a Doberman.

                            It moved on without apparent notice of the trio.

                            Akio let out a quiet breath.

                            "Quickly," he hissed quietly. "We must move quickly and with purpose."

                            His eyes went to the rows of cans on the shelves.

                            "Don't stop to read labels. We're in the fruits and vegetables aisle. Just grab what is easy to hand and put it in the basket as quickly and as quietly as you can."
                            Rick Canaan's Signature
                            A balanced diet is an ice cream cone in each hand - Rick Canaan

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                              Adrian gave Akio a nod in response to his advice.

                              "Right. Avoid toppling the cans, got it."

                              He noted Akio's near miss as well, and he increased the care with which he placed his feet.

                              Seconds later, he froze as he peered down the aisle, having spotted the infected at the meat counter.

                              "Got an infected," He breathed.

                              He watched it carefully as it... hyperventilated, as far as he could see. Part of his brain wondered why it was doing that, and how it was getting away with it. However, the rest of his brain was monitoring the creature, and keeping an ear and an eye out for any others.

                              Finally, however, it moved on, and Adrian let out a low sigh of relief.

                              "Right," he replied to Akio's instructions, slipping into the aisle, and started pulling cans off the shelves one-handed, carefully placing them in the cart. Without a sling on the shotgun, he had no way of storing it on his person, and he had no desire to put it down.
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                              Fanfiction


                              Deviantart


                              Insatiable Curiosity

                              Major Leon Stormstrider

                              Varatyr Scorchtalon

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                                "I don't think so," Mickey said, when Geoff made his musings on the meaning of their lives, "What kind of god would allow this to happen? Or what programmer, for that matter? Simulation or not, I don't think anyone could put conscious beings through this."

                                The dog shrugged, and scuffed the ground with his foot.

                                "But yeah, I agree with the working together part."

                                When Geoff continued and brought up the drone, Mickey's ears perked up and his tail began to wag. In the excitement of Tobias waking back up, he'd entirely forgotten about that!

                                "Oh damn, sure!" His eyes sparkled as he practically hopped on the spot, "Tobias, you want to see me fly Geoff's drone? You feel up to moving to the window or something?"

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                                  Tobias snapped out of a stupor the moment he heard his name, his clouded thoughts getting a shining light blown through them like a lighthouse on misty seas. He groaned slightly when he tried to move, but he wasn't incapacitated anymore. With a little shift, he was sitting on the edge of the bed.

                                  "A drone? I haven't seen one of those in a while. I actually can't really remember last time I saw one..." He cleared his throat, a smile actually crawling across his face. "That sounds fun, actually!"

                                  As long as he didn't get too worked up, it looked like he'd be able to stay conscious, hopefully long enough for the others to bring food.

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                                    "Good to know..." Ember thought, the Wolf almost reached for his pistol, but remembered the No-Movement rule. The creature eventually waked by, it's grotesque appearance remained burned into the back of his mind, Something he would never forget, Ember would slowly move to grab food off the shelves and put them in the cart, his rifle slinged and at the ready, Ember remained alert for any movement, occasionally looking for any of the creatures. He couldn't wait to get the hell out of here...

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                                      Geoff shrugged, "Well, I've met my share of sociopathic Founders and so-called 'visionaries in my time in the valley. Most of them thought they were changing the world. Well, they were right, but they were changing it for the worse. Some of these people absolutely would consider what happened to us as an optimal outcome." he shivered, "There's not much point in crying over spilled milk, though." he said, shaking his head, his eyes sunken slightly and ears lowered. "Here we are, and we'll have to do our best."

                                      Seeing Tobias sit up was a relief. His ears raised up a bit and his eyes seemed more focused on the horse. His tail had also started to swish. "That was a close thing there, Tobias. How are you feeling? I can see a little more colour now, at least."

                                      He looked over to Mickey, "Let's get the drone ready then. I'll show you how it works, and then you can show me how to actually fly the thing."

                                      With that, he popped out of the room for a moment, opened the door to his storage closet and returned a few moments later with a large padded backpack. He set this on the bed and unzipped it. Mickey and Tobias could see the bag had straps and compartments for each of the components.

                                      He took out the drone frame with the four motors and electronics attached. It was an X shaped frame made of carbon-fibre. The motors were on the corners of the X. The batteries and electronics were towards the back of the frame, while a camera on a Gimbal resided on the front. Then pulled out a portable VR headset, a pair of haptic gloves, batteries, and the propellors for the drone itself.

                                      He left a handheld remote control in the bag. It was possible to control the drone traditionally or using First-Person VewVR. That was something the drone racers had spent a lot of time perfecting. Geoff could never really get the hang of that though, the way the drone moved was telling his brain something, and his body told him something else, which tended to make him pretty ill if he tried to fly it that way for too long.

                                      One thing that was clear from watching Geoff work, was that he was definitely well-versed in technology and electronics.

                                      He shows Mickey how to put it together. First, the propellors go on each of the motors. The motors on one set of corners opposite each other spin in one direction, while the ones in the other set spin the other direction. He shows Mickey the marking on the propellor that shows what direction they spin and the mark on the motor that says which way it's wired to spin.

                                      "The motors spinning in opposite direction is what gives it stability. If all the motors were spinning in the same direction the whole drone would rotate around. It was fun seeing students figure this out."

                                      He connected the battery pack to the VR console, then connected another two packs to the drone, securing them in place with tie straps. Then he powered the craft on. There was a chime and the sound of the motors briefly powering up as the onboard flight controller calibrated itself and connected to the VR rig.

                                      He handed the gloves and headset to Mickey and held the drone up. "Go ahead and get familiar with the controls. Once you're comfortable, I'll send it out the window and you can go scout around. The camera has a good resolution so you should be able to see pretty well."
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                                      “Just when you think humanity has found the limits of stupid, they go and ratchet up the standard by another notch.” - Bob

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                                        Adrian, Akio and Ember were able to get the cart almost full. They had to stop, though, because another of the creatures, when they were little more than halfway down the aisle, decided to stop right at the end of it.

                                        It was another moment of the trio pausing breathlessly, waiting for the creature to move on as the first one had. But its chest heaving like a marathon-runner right after a race, it stopped right there at the end of their aisle and lowered itself onto its haunches.

                                        Several tense minutes passed. The creature did not move. One move from them, from either Adrian, Akio or Ember, and they knew the creature would not be able to avoid noticing them.

                                        Finally, it was Akio who broke the silence.

                                        "Go!" he hissed quietly, his green eyes alight with desperation and frustration. "You must get your horse friend well so he can bring the fuel to your underground refuge. Too many people are depending on your success."

                                        His eyes flicked to Ember. "You go with him!"

                                        His voice was barely a hiss, he speaking as low but as urgently as he could.

                                        "They are going to need someone with military experience! Now go! Start pushing the cart out of here as fast as you can! Get out of here!"

                                        If either Adrian or Ember started to open their mouths, he'd hiss, "No arguing! Go! If your people are to have a chance, you need to get out of here!"

                                        And it was then that the creature turned its head. It stared straight at the trio. Its eyes, only barely able to be seen in the gloom, were orbs of dead puss. It looked like it had been some species of panther. A big cat. What kind though, was impossible to tell. A jaguar, a leopard... the skin was just too mottled black and brown, only patches of mangy fur here and there.

                                        Akio's knuckles grew hard around the haft of his ashandarie. His teeth started to bear.

                                        "Go!" he hissed again. Then in a much louder voice, a full bellow this time, he shouted it.

                                        "Go!!" And then he was running as hard as he could toward the creature, his ashandarie leveling out in front of him for a killing plunge when he reached the creature with it.

                                        Which instantly rose to its feet, snarled with ugly fangs and let out one of those loon-like cries that had the power to ring ears.

                                        It was instantly echoed by dozens of others.
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                                          Adrian had frozen the instant the creature had appeared, despite his instincts screaming at him to level his weapon at it.

                                          He had to hold his wings completely rigid as well, to prevent them from flaring in a gesture that was intended to intimidate.

                                          The dragon looked at Akio out of the corner of his eye when the tiger finally spoke.

                                          "Akio..." he breathed, his voice thick with emotion.

                                          He blinked away tears, before whipping around as the tiger charged.

                                          "Thank you, Akio!" he barked out, aware that he likely wouldn't be heard, even as he broke into a run, pushing the cart as fast as he could towards the front of the store, "Ember! Let's move!"

                                          As they burst out the the aisle, he shifted trajectory for the door. It wasn't the straightest route, but it was the clearest.

                                          The moment they were out the door, Adrian raced for his truck.

                                          "I'm putting the cans in the cab," he barked, skidding to a halt next to the vehicle and opening the door, "We don't have time to secure them in the back."

                                          He turned, holding out the shotgun grip-first.

                                          "Take this and watch my back. There's not enough room for us both here."

                                          As soon as Ember took the shotgun, he whipped back around and started scooping armfuls of cans into the passenger seat and its footwell.
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                                          Insatiable Curiosity

                                          Major Leon Stormstrider

                                          Varatyr Scorchtalon

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