High up in his treehouse, Wolfie scoped the ground for the enemy. His binoculars settled on a group of boys, and he allowed himself a grim smile. “There you are.”
His drone was a beautiful instrument, with heavy black blades and a claw that opened and closed. It hummed to life, the blades of its wings whipping the air. With all the slow care of a just-hatched dragonfly, it rose into the air.
Wolfie flung open a treasure chest of fat, trembling water balloons. From the chest he drew a baby-blue water balloon and fastened it to the hook. It was cold in his hand, sweating in the humid treehouse.
Out went the drone, through the door and into the open air. Wolfie fought the wind as he aimed it down, down toward his enemies, to Big Faro and his punkish crowd.
“Did you think that’d hurt?” he remembered Faro saying. Faro’s spindly tailor’s fingers had Wolfie’s scruffy, shoulder-length hair in a vise grip. As Faro’s knee shot up, Wolfie’s face had come down. And down, and down, and down, his nose cracking against the smaller boy’s knee.
“Huh? You thought you had something on me?”
He had thrown Wolfie into the chain-link fence. His dark, bitter eyes were bloodshot, and his body was trembling.
“You’re nothing. I just beat you to the ground without even using my Gift.”
Wolfie had clawed up the fence, pulling himself to his feet. He had jumped away from the fence as it began to writhe－ languid, fluid, wires crawling over each other like a web of snakes. Faro’s eyes met his, and he flinched. Faro’s lip curled. Wolfie’s insides withered.
“Get out of my sight.”
"Not today," Wolfie muttered as he glided his drone over their heads.
“Fool says what?”
"What?!" Wolfie started, and the drone jerked upward. He whirled around with wide eyes, then released a sigh when he saw it was only Raqi. "Go away. I'm busy."
"That," said Raqi with a frown, "is the exact opposite way you should be treating your big brother."
"I said I'm busy."
Wolfie turned back to the treehouse window, gritting his teeth as he tried to get his drone back into position. He wasn’t sure what possessed Faro to look up, but he cursed it.
“What’re you doing up here, anyway?” Raqi looked over Wolfie’s shoulder, following his gaze.
Wolfie wrinkled his crooked nose. “You stink.”
Raqi plucked at his soaked sleeves. “Mr Cavicchi’s air conditioning broke down again.”
“Get away from me.”
Faro took a step back. The drone followed him. His buddies scattered, and he started to zigzag, dodging and weaving to escape an unwanted baptism.
“Why’re you running?” Wolfie grumbled. “It’s hot as hell. Let me dunk you already, jerk.”
The baby-blue water balloon chased Faro to the end of the street before Wolfie decided to bring the drone back. He sighed, defeated. “What are you even doing here?”
"The manager gave me a break, so I thought I'd see my little brother."
“You saw me,” said Wolfie. “Now get away from me before I suffocate.”
Raqi walked the length of the treehouse, bent at the waist so that he could fit. With a groan of release, he sank into the beanbag. His hand fished around the rough wooden floor until it found the newspaper.
Adjusting to the poor lighting, his eyes shifted from colour to colour. They settled on a pale blue that was only a shade lighter than what they were before. Wolfie rolled his own eyes at him.
Raqi glared at Wolfie through one of the ten-thousand holes cut out of the page. “You couldn’t leave the sports section? Really?”
“Stop contaminating my stuff.”
Sighing, Raqi turned to the next page. His navy blue eyebrows jumped. "Would you look at that. That jewel thief apparently made it all the way here, to this very town.”
“Rio. The guy from－”
The alarm jolted him to his feet, where he smashed the top of his skull into the ceiling. Raqi curled up, holding his head. His dark blue hair went white and green and red and purple and black and red again.
THERE HAS BEEN A BREACH IN THE RICHARDET WALL. THIS IS NOT A DRILL. THERE HAS BEEN A BREACH IN THE RICHARDET WALL.
As the alarms blared, Raqi jumped up and down the treehouse, cursing it and its mother. His hair changed colors faster than a pinwheel. It flared a rusty, unflattering red before settling back to navy blue.
"I," Wolfie said with relish, "am telling Mam every single word you just said."
"God's bones take your mangled corpse," Raqi snapped, stomping toward the rope ladder. "You stay up here and don't move, you hear me?"
"Whatever." Wolfie turned back toward the window. “You know they’re not going to send you out to fight, right? Your Gift’s too useless.”
“How would you know?”
“I know my place.”
“Yeah? What a－”
THERE HAS BEEN A BREACH IN THE RICHARDET WALL.
"Oh, be quiet!" Raqi snapped at the intercom.
He was just starting to descend another step when Wolfie's drone swooped in from the side. Raqi ducked, saving his head, but lost his balance and fell onto the rusty brown patch of grass that used to be a lawn. His hair and face reddened as he staggered to his feet and ran for Richardet Strong Center.
"Moron,” muttered Wolfie.
When he’d finished pulling up the rope ladder, he yanked the bean bag to the window and sat down to watch the invasion.
There was a crack in the Richardet Wall, and below it, a hole. As Wolfie stared, he saw something wiggle through the hole and scuttle away into the bean fields. Another one came after it. Then another. And another, until the hole had become a veritable stream of grey-skinned ape creatures, scythe claws, and gaping jaws.
“Stupid morphics.” Wolfie lowered his binoculars. “Your dinner’s safe inside their homes.”
Morphics would attack anything that moved or made noise, but only if they were in the morphics’ direct path. And they hated shadows, so even someone stupid enough to go out would probably survive so long as they stood still.
A pack of five stopped beneath the treehouse. They snuffled their flat, batlike snouts into the dead lawn, nosing the crusty leaves.
“Hey,” Wolfie called down. “I’m up here if you wanna eat me.”
One of their ears flapped, but otherwise, they paid him no mind. A fly buzzed across their paths in a dopey, lazy glide. They attacked it as one, pouncing and tearing into the lawn in a cloud of dead grass and dust.
Wolfie sighed. “Stupid morphics.”
Across the street, a tall figure in a long coat and wide-brimmed hat flitted from shadow to shadow. Wolfie squinted at him, trying to place who he was.
A morphic had caught the same movement Wolfie had, and was staring into the shadow of the neighbor’s house. It growled, shaking dirt off its skin as it prowled towards the man in the coat.
The morphic’s flat nose wiggled, but the human scent was everywhere. And it wouldn’t dare go into the shadow. The man drew a long knife, readying himself to attack.
“Hey!” Wolfie shouted down at him. “That’s a really good way to get eaten, you know!”
The man looked up at him, flashing Wolfie a thumbs-up. As Wolfie shook his head in disbelief, the man sheathed his knife. Then he pulled out a revolver and shot the morphic point-blank.
The crack echoed through the empty streets. The pack raised their heads, their flat noses trembling at the scent of morphic blood. One of them screeched, and the others took up its cry. All around the town, the morphic after morphic added their voice to the shrill, sharp screams.
The man in the coat shot the other four pack members, cutting short a few screams. But by then, it was too late. High up in his treehouse, Wolfie felt the earth tremble, and in the distance was the roar of stampede.
The morphics were closing in on both sides of the street. The day was dying, and the shadows were stretching. There was hardly any cover left as the morphic horde pounced on the man in the coat.
A drone swooped from the treehouse window, carrying a fat, dripping water balloon. Wolfie dropped the balloon right on top of the morphic horde. The morphics screeched, clawing over each other in a frenzy.
The man shot into the horde a few more times, backing up against Wolfie’s tree. Then he whirled around, shimmying up the tree and diving into the treehouse. The drone zipped in behind him, right into Wolfie’s arms.
The man panted, hands braced against his knees. “What the Hell are those demons?”
Wolfie scowled. “They’re morphics, obviously. Everyone knows that.”
“Everyone except me knows that,” the man corrected, turning his head and flashing Wolfie a smile. “Grazie for the help.”
Wolfie blinked at the man’s face. It was a handsome, sun-worn face with a small, well-kept beard and impressive mustache. Unfortunately, it was also the face on the wanted poster tucked into his newspaper.
He took a step back. Then he remembered the man’s long, sharp knife that would have gutted a monster.
Rio raised his eyebrows.
The tips of his hair were paling. Wolfie clenched his jaw, trying to get his Gift under control.
Rio climbed onto the window frame. He looked over his shoulder at Wolfie and winked. “I pay you back, yes? A favor for a favor.”
The thief leaped and was gone. Wolfie ran toward the window frame, catching it as he leaned out the window, certain he would see the man splatter on the ground like a rotten tomato.
But Rio did not splatter. Wolfie raised his binoculars to his eyes. The man in the coat was nowhere in sight, even from the view of the treehouse.
A sharp whistle rang through the streets, and the horde abandoned the treehouse. They followed the sound to the Strong Center, where waited the Stronguards.
Tearing his eyes away from the window, he went to the door and opened it. His mam stared up at him. Her hair was spiking all over the place, stark white with fright.
“Oh,” she said, placing a hand on her chest. Her hair went completely limp, the white fizzling over to black. “Thank God.”
Raqi placed a hand on her shoulder. “I told you he was fine. We’re all fine.”
“My boys.” She put her face in her hands. “My poor boys.”
Raqi beckoned Wolfie to come down. “C’mon, show’s over. Let’s get Mam inside before her heart acts up.”
As Wolfie climbed down, he felt the hair on the back of his neck rise. He looked over his shoulder, raising his gaze to the roof of his house.
Rio grinned and gave him a wink.