Keelan looked up at me, a small bundle of blankets in his arms. “What should we name him?” I just shook my head. It felt like I’d swallowed an egg whole and it had lodged itself in my trachea. I couldn’t speak, not because I didn’t want to, but because all the words that came to me to describe the moment weren’t big enough, weren’t as detailed or as all-consuming as this moment was.
Carefully, he passed the precious bundle to me and I pressed the small opening at the head wider to see inside. There was nothing. I unwrapped the blanket to uncover another wrapped blanket. With each new blanket uncovered, my frenzy built until all I had were tiny hospital blankets scattered at my feet. I whirled to face Keelan, but the bed was empty, the blankets there pulled aside and crumpled.
I had to find them, they couldn’t have gone far. He’d promised. Hadn’t he?
I froze at the faint sound of crying. Turning towards it, I ran, I ran for everything I loved, everything I could no longer live without. The closer I got, the higher pitched the crying became and the more cries joined in.
I had to find them. I had to–
Pain wracked my body, every muscle seizing at once, fire racing through my blood.
“Fuck!” My eyes flew open and I gasped, adrenaline pumping through my system.
“Move it, boy,” a voice boomed to my left. My eyes and my gun settled on Captain Thurgood almost at the same time. In one hand he held a Glock, in the other a taser.
I blinked. “What-”
“Later,” he interrupted, nodding toward the hill full of trees to one side, up which the old mill could be found. It took me a moment to realize the reason I could see so well on the night of a new moon was because someone had started a pretty large bonfire up there. I could hear the sirens down the road where the firetruck was approaching the mill’s drive.
The Captain cursed and pulled out his cellphone, punching in a number. “Pierce,” he barked into the phone, “I told you to keep your team back until we’ve cleared the area.” He growled at whatever the Fire Chief said as he moved on down the line, shocking personnel awake as he went.
I climbed out of my vehicle, checking my vest for spare clips and grabbed a helmet. In minutes the whole of Hidden Pine’s police department, a third in their shifted forms, were moving through the trees. I didn’t know what had happened, but it seemed as if nearly the whole department, everyone who’d been on this assignment, had been put under. I just hoped we weren’t too late now, but a glance at my watch told me we were. A crashing sound echoed from up the hill and what appeared to be multiple flares bundled together, shot into the sky, disappearing in the heavy clouds.
As we reached the edge of the clearing where the old mill stood, I could see that the bonfire was in fact the mill itself as the bright flames roared from the uppermost floor. It looked like a giant hole had been ripped through the rear side of the roof and wall, black clouds billowing as if from a giant smoke stack. More smoke puffed from open wounds on the second floor and a couple windows on the first.
The town’s primary firetruck pulled into the grass by the driveway, yellow ants swarming them to set up the water hoses. It was clear they meant to do no more than keep the fire from spreading as they sprayed the dry grass around the base and outward. Just after we moved out from the trees, I saw the flanks of team two approaching from the other side. Creaking metal could be heard as the old fashioned wind turbine in the front no doubt became unstable in the heat of the fire.
A couple firefighters moved around to the door set on the side of the building towards me where the main ground floor door stood open, the closer pipeman preceding their path with water spray. Maybe they intended to check the place for survivors after all. There was a faint glow from inside the doorway, but it seemed as if the fire hadn’t quite made it to the mill’s entrance. I noticed a flash of movement from just inside the doorway and shouted for the firemen to stay back, but my voice was faded by distance and washed away by the water spray and crackling fire.
Signaling my team to move in, I kept my weapon at a slightly lowered but ready angle as I picked up the pace, my team matching me. Wishing they’d stuck to simply maintaining the fire, I aimed at the ground in front of the approaching firefighters and shot to get their attention. It worked, as they both jumped a step back, but that also drew the attention of the group that just exited the fire from where they’d been bent over, coughing. My team halted several yards from them.
“Move away from the building and get down on the ground!” I shouted, now close enough to be heard
Scanning them, I noticed a distinct lack of dragon and the big man was simply too large to be the chameleon. The witch stared in shock, looking even smaller next to the bulky man next to her holding… a body? Avery, slinking at the back, shifted to the side.
“Don’t even think about it!” the nearest officer yelled, setting off a cacophony.
“Down on the ground!”
“Hands palms up at your sides!”
Avery stalled in following the directions, eyes darting side to side for an escape that didn’t exist. The tall man with a faux hawk, known from Chase’s files to be Brandon Jeffries, complied, stepping forward and gently setting the body he carried on the ground in front of him. When Jeffries removed his hands the body’s head fell toward me. It was a familiar face. Someone I hadn’t talked to much, but had seemed nice, if a bit awkward. Most importantly, they shouldn’t have been in Hidden Pines at all.
The witch’s raised hands fell to her sides as her eyes turned skyward. One moment I was looking into the face of Levi Hathan, the next I was on my back, gasping. A loud snap erupted past the ringing in my ears and I rolled to the side to push myself up. The turbine had snapped and fallen, one spoke digging into the dirt as it tipped forward, crashing onto the firetruck, the firemen dodging in all directions. The Fire Chief is gonna be pissed, that was a brand new truck. That wasn’t all either, the mill itself was almost completely collapsed, chunks falling both into the roaring fire as well as tilting outward.
At the center of the wreckage stood a huge dragon, its head snaking violently as it screamed in protest or pain, climbing out of the burning mill. One of its wings had a massive rip through the membrane, lengthening with every frantic wingbeat, and the other looked awkwardly bent as it dragged on the ground. Something burning stuck out of her neck, probably what she was trying to shake off. So, we’ve found Learsa.
Team two was making their way around her, boxing her in under the direction of Captain Thurgood. Learsa would have been a whole lot more intimidating if she’d even been marginally less injured. Leaving the dragon to them I looked back to where the prisoners should have been, the ground empty save for the unconscious face of Levi. God, I hoped he was just asleep.
Groaning, I got my feet under me, glancing around the area. A couple of the others were coming around, groaning themselves, as more were doing quick status checks. I stooped with a grunt, feels like I got hit by a semi, to grab my gun.
I waved at a couple firefighters who were picking their way over to us and motioned to the teenager, making sure that Levi would be taken care of first. Removing my helmet, I dropped it to the ground. “We’ve got three on the run,” I addressed those of my team who were moving to rise, if they hadn’t already. “We’ll search in teams of three. Fan out. Lewis, O’Connor, on me,” I snapped at the two men already grabbing their own guns.
That left each of the other two teams that had formed with a shifted officer. In a V-formation, each team entered the woods at different points. I lead my team around the rear of the building, watching the trees for movement. We were only about a quarter mile in when I heard an awkward sound that abruptly cut off. Holding up a fist, the three of us paused. I motioned to Lewis to shift. Quickly, but silently, he stripped, turning his shirt into a makeshift bag for his belongings, as he was taught and shoved it in the crook of two trees that split from the same roots for later retrieval. A couple minutes later and he stood in his wolf form, about three feet tall at the shoulder. Taking another minute to sniff the ground and air as his ears twitched and turned, taking in all the new information, he moved forward just slightly to the left of our original course.
I’d have shifted except bison have very poor eyesight under the best of conditions, which these were not. Instead, O’Connor and I flanked him as quietly as we could, taking our time with our guns at the ready and watching our respective sides. There was the sound of moving water up ahead, a creek or possible tributary to Pine river. Approaching the edge of the trees, we saw a small clearing of grass and wildflowers stretching to a low strip of sand at the edge of a creek nearly big enough to be called a river.
Avery was bent over something closer to the treeline. With a hand signal the three of us spread out, set to enter the area at different points, with Lewis taking the closest to Avery. As I moved around the curve of trees I noticed that Avery was hunched over Brandon. Odd. Maybe Brandon had been injured. Wouldn’t be surprising with a dragon falling from the sky and all.
As we stepped from the trees I called, “Brandon Jeffries and Avery Lange, you are under arrest. Lay down on your stomach with your palms facing up.”
Avery looked up from what he was doing, glancing around the clearing at the three of us. O’Connor and I were at an obtuse angle from each other where we could maintain our sides while not standing dangerously in the other’s line of fire. Lewis was crouched low, ready to spring forward.
“Well, you’re early,” Avery said, irked. “No fair.”
It was then that I noticed that his hands had not been beside Brandon as he checked on him, they’d been inside him. As he removed his bloodied hands from Brandon’s abdomen, he flung an arm toward Lewis. It looked like he cast a spell, flames seemingly sparking from his finger tips. But I knew what it was. A shot rang out the other side of Lewis at the same moment and blood sprayed. The bullet, however, did not hit Avery but grazed him before it entered Brandon, a barrage of white fire blooming from his body. The impact of the explosion threw Avery back, pinwheeling him a few feet back toward the treeline.
Although Avery’s throwing arm wasn’t that great, some of the sparks that jumped from the chunk of white phosphorous he’d thrown had made it to Lewis, the pressure from the explosion helping them along as well. I ran toward where Lewis had landed, having been knocked down by the shockwave as well.
“We need to get him to the river and wash it off,” I yelled to O’Connor as he came running as well, both of us having been out of range of the blast radius ourselves. “Don’t touch the burning fur and don’t breathe in the smoke. And you,” I said, addressing Lewis as I skidded to a halt next to him, “don’t shift, unless you want the chemicals directly on your skin. Go! Now!”
Lewis had a stumbling start but then took off toward the river, O’Connor on his tail, skirting the human bonfire and its poisonous smoke. I didn’t spend too much time thinking about it, sure they’d be fine now; Lewis hadn’t had a whole lot of the substance stick to his fur. But. If I wanted this whole thing to end I needed to make sure Avery was either in custody or dead. I was hoping for the latter, as he’d seemed like a crumpled mess as I’d passed him on my way to Lewis, but I knew when it came to this maniac I wasn’t the lucky one thus far.
Sure enough, as I skirted the burning corpse and the small fires started by the sparks while retracing my steps, I caught sight of Avery limping away just at the treeline about twenty feet in front of me.
Leveling my gun on him, I said, “Enough, Avery. Get on your knees, hands behind your head.”
He slowly turned toward me. “Oh? I think not.”
On the last word he turned and flung the his arm at me. I took the shot. And the river rock thudded dully against my vest.