There is an hour each night when this land goes dark. It’s called the Absent Hour. Every night, I sit out in the big oak with its sweeping boughs that hug me like my mother once did. I sit in it and I watch the clouds roll across the desert sky to block out the moon. The stars get brighter, but the sand below it doesn’t.
It’s a dangerous hour. Most doors are barred, and the people behind them hope to sleep through Absent Hour.
Devoid of light, yes. But also of safety, for the Lions hunt at night.
Stories say they used to be human years ago, until they mixed their blood with that of the huge cats and made a promise to the moon. When she shines they swear to stay away from the village. But when she is Absent they hunger for the flesh they used to carry on their own backs.
But they won’t be the only ones hunting tonight.
“Are you ready?”
The whisper comes from below me. Jetta’s voice is just shy of a growl and her shoulders are leaning towards leonine in the waning moonlight. She smells like saffron and smoke. She glances up and back at me, but her blue black curls obscure eyes that would reflect green.
“I’m ready.” My own voice is lower than it should be. My muscles push and pull against themselves as the clouds run to cover the moon, begging to shift me into something bigger than myself.
Light leaches from the dunes and what we have waited all night for happens in seconds.
Jetta’s hand is widening even as she reaches up for mine. We jump from the tree together, bodies rent with the change of Absent Hour. The Pleiades explode in my eyes as my spine breaks, lengthens. Fingers shorten, sharp claws retract into pads as I land on all fours. I can see, even in the dark, and the breeze brings a barrage of scent to my nostrils. My ears ring at first, adjusting to their new way of hearing every tiny thing that scurries to safety.
Next to me, Jetta shakes off her human skin with ease. Her spotted hide is almost invisible in the starlight, but I sense her more than I see her.
“I’ll never get enough of you like this,” she thinks at me.
“Same,” I say.
She was made for this form. We both are.
The lions aren’t the only creatures that roam the Absent Hour looking for blood. Jaguars hunt lions while Lions hunt humans. Lions may have made a deal with the moon, but jags answer to the stars. They shine true despite the clouds. We hold their light within us, it crackles like fire in my chest. It tells me one thing: protect.
A dog bays to the east, snarls sharp and adamant, angry.
“Come on,” I say. We fly across the sand like streamlined ghosts. I steal a glance at Jetta. She runs like a river, smooth and fierce. She swerves, bumping my shoulder with her own, and chirps her affection. I hum my own right back to her.
The dog’s noise stops with a yelp as we come upon a dark cottage house. I smell them before I see them, their musk is heavy and hot in my nose. We crouch, bellies dragging in the sand and scraggly grass.
“Just two.” Jetta eyes are trained to the front of the house. One hulking form crunches the dog’s body between strong jaws. The other leans on the door of the house, testing its give.
The door cracks, the splitting wood like gunshot in the dark. I spring up up only a second before Jetta. I rush the largest of them. I know the precise moment he hears me. Muscles tense for a moment, and then he’s running for me.
We hit each other and it’s a landslide of force. I lose Jetta in the chaos of a mismatched fight. We lock together, my strength testing his size. Hot blood drips onto the sand. My chest burns under the weight of a lion on my windpipe. We struggle for moments that seem like hours. I hold on doggedly even as my vision shrinks to pinpricks. With one last effort, I scrabble to find a grip and clench my jaw. His blood runs metallic down my throat, but it’s not enough. I can’t breathe.
An explosion hits us, and the lion’s weight shifts. I find purchase in the desert grass and shake him once, hard. His throat rips out, wet and tearing, and he falls to the sand.
I shake myself. Jetta’s opponent is on the run, limping badly. He sucks wind through a lung filled with blood. He won’t get far.
I look to my jaguar. Our foreheads meet in the scant light and I nuzzle her to my chest. It’s even blacker in the night, wet with blood. She smells like home.
“Thanks,” I say.
The house is dark and quiet, even still. We turn our backs to it, waiting, listening to jags and lions fight for life and fight for death. A human scream for help peals from across the village.
Absent Hour reigns, and we’re running again.
Stay tuned for Anne’s answer to this prompt next Monday. Follow us on Twitter to get updates and news.