Chapter 8

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Jaron abandons Luca's side and strides towards the bulky carcass. He kicks at it, tilting his head and furrowing his brow as he circles the animal. I kneel beside him, reaching out to touch the metal gear protruding from its chest.

"It is the same as the others, is it not?" Jaron says.

"More teeth." I reply, wiping my goo-covered hand on my thigh. My heart still races from seeing Luca lie motionless and I exhale through my nose in an attempt to calm myself.

"What manner of beast is this?" Jaron lifts the animal's lip, examining its incisors.

"A lion." One of the Wasters speaks up. "Rarely seen in these parts but there have been rumours of their numbers increasing in the North."

"And are they known to attack unprovoked?" I ask.

"Never."

"Then it's safe to assume that the Madam has modified their behaviour." I devise, grimacing. "Although, this elegant accessory could have told us that."

"There will be more." Jaron remarks as he scans the horizon. "We should keep moving."

"In a moment." Luca joins us, a dagger clenched in his fist. "Waste not."

It takes a team of Wasters less than an hour to skin and dress the gigantic lion. We load several heavy, choice cuts onto a cart and send a couple men to deliver the food back to the City. I eye the strange, pink meat warily. Knowing that until recently the food existed as a terrifying, snarling monster fills me with revulsion. Still, food is food.

As the others prepare to leave, I linger a few moments longer by the remains. The giant gear rests on its side, coated in the lion's black, sticky blood and glinting in the afternoon sunlight.

My mind flashes to an image of a similar appendage bursting through Will's chest, smaller than the one before me but unsettling just the same. I shudder, thinking of the Madam's scientists in their pristine white coats, hunched over their victims as they graft cruel mechanical implements to their bodies. Does Will realize what's happened to him? Is there still some semblance of the man I loved trapped inside?

"What are you thinking?" Luca appears beside me and I jump, jerked free of my imagination.

"This gear." I turn over the hunk of machinery. "It's more sophisticated than the others. The Madam is improving her skills."

"Then we will have to improve ours." Luca replies.

I nod, biting down hard on my lip. "What kind of power does someone have to wield in order to capture a lion and turn it into one of these... things?"

"Do not tell me that you are doubting us." Luca says, keeping his tone light. "I did not just throw myself beneath a demon for you to give up at the first impasse."

A snort escapes me. "Who said anything about giving up."

"That is more like it." Luca says. His gaze falls to my shoulder and he frowns. "You are hurt."

I follow his eyeline, for the first time noticing the splotch of blood darkening my tunic. I touch the wound lightly and wince.

"Come on." Luca inclines his head. "Let us both get cleaned up. We must look our best for when we meet the Madam."

"Luca," I say, letting him lead me back towards the group. "You really saved me back there."

"Oh, have we begun keeping score, again?"

"No." I suppress a grin. "I guess I mean to say thanks."

"It was not a favour." Luca says sternly. "I will need you to keep me alive at some point in the future. I am selfish, you see."

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