Emergence- Chapter Four
Jessica got off the bus at the first stop and looked around. Cars whizzed by on the arterial, their passing causing her hair to whip wildly around her head. Brushing it out of her eyes, she pulled the ineffectual band the rest of the way out of her hair and stared out across the street.
Tall fences lined the sidewalk on the other side. They stretched for blocks in either direction. Maybe I should have stayed on the bus for another stop or two … but something told her that it wouldn’t take them long to figure out where she’d gone.
She looked behind her and saw her only other option, a suburban pocket neighborhood. It wasn’t great, but better than being a sitting duck on the bus. At least out in the open I have a chance. I wish they’d just leave me alone.
She limped down the sidewalk into the neighborhood. Once off the main thoroughfare, she breathed a little easier. Now she just needed to figure out a way to put some distance between her and the Hunters. Unfortunately, the neighborhood was all but deserted at this time of the day. There didn’t appear to be anyone she could ask for a ride or to use their phone. No point in even trying her phone. If they shut down her bank card they would have her cell traced also. She walked for a while aimlessly, hunger gnawing at her.
The neighborhood was one of those twisting, convoluted types, with lots of cul-de-sacs and dead ends and houses that all looked the same, except for which pastel shade they were painted.
Grinding her teeth, she turned around, yet again, as she found herself in another dead end. If the stakes weren’t so high she’d have given up already. Fire consumed her leg and the fatigue ate at her. Sheer stubbornness kept her going. Forcing her to move farther into the labyrinth, and hope an opportunity would present itself.
The sound of a car approached. Uncertainty seized her. A possible opportunity? Or the Hunters trolling the neighborhood? She gripped her injured thigh while her mind dithered. On the road? Off the road? The car rounded the corner before she could decide, so she raised her hand, waving. The soccer mom just waved back and continued on her way. Jessica’s hand fell to her side. She closed her eyes and suppressed tears of frustration and pain. Taking a deep breath, she looked up at the sky, then squeezing her leg tighter, she continued on.
How do I get out of this place! She thought a while later as she turned around in another dead end. The neighborhood was worse than a carnival maze. She was lucky that the recovery teams hadn’t found her yet.
Something caught her eye. She hurried her pace, her leg dragging slightly. Ahead there was a paved walkway, nearly hidden between two of the houses. She ducked down it, hoping to just get off of the road and rest. Instead, she discovered a park. The ribbon wound through a manicured, grassy field enclosed by the back yards of the houses that surrounded it. Following the path, she limped along looking at her surroundings. It curved around a tennis court then on up past an empty playground. Other branches connected into the main walkway, showing where additional entrances to the park lay.
She sank down to rest on a bench and listened to dogs bark in the nearby houses, while birds picked worms out of the grass under the midday sun.
It was all she could do not to stretch out on the bench and fall asleep in the sun. Her stomach growled, distracting her. A quick glance around the park showed that she was still alone, so she pulled her backpack onto her lap. Opening it, she grabbed a handful of trail mix. A majority of the first bite scattered to the ground as she convulsively clenched it in her fist. Her stomach cramped viciously. She had to let the spasm ease before she tried again to eat it. The smell of the grain made her wrinkle her nose but she forced herself to start crunching. All she could manage to ingest were two small handfuls before her stomach rebelled. Gagging, she shoved the trail mix back into the bag, dreaming of prime rib for dinner. With a sigh she ignored the hunger pains and wriggled her sore feet before pulling her pant leg up enough to look at her calf. The butterflies seemed to be mostly holding the gash together so she let the material fall. There wasn’t a good way to inspect the wound on her thigh, she twisted to the side and tried to feel through the denim how the bandaging was holding up. Not as good as she could hope. Blood seeped through the layers.
Rubbing her face in her hands, she rested her elbows on her knees and hung her head. Her exhausted body craved sleep and now that she had finally stopped, she was close to giving in to it. No, wake up. You can’t give in now. She pulled one of her water bottles out and splashed some on her face. Come on, get up.
She zipped up her backpack, then stood and started to sling it over her shoulder when some unknown inner alarm made her freeze. Cocking her head, she listened, and like a vixen that had heard the horn and the belling of the pack nearby, she shivered.
That same unfamiliar feeling, that inner awareness that had warned her when the recovery team had come for her last night, started screaming at her again. Adrenaline jacked her system. Alert, she looked around. They must have picked up my trail. Now what? Scanning all the available cover, she noticed a large evergreen tree standing alone by the playground near one of the park entrances. That just might work. Ignoring her leg, she pushed it into a run, and slipping both her arms through the straps on her backpack, she cinched them up tight. She reached the tree and, without pausing, crouched and leapt to the lowest branch, stifling a scream as her thigh tore open. Climbing limb over limb, heedless of the pitch sticking to her hands and clothes, or the way the gashes in her leg pulled, she could feel the blood trickling down her leg. The branches grew smaller. She stopped. If she went any higher, the branches wouldn’t conceal her. She just hoped the Hunters didn’t notice the tree swaying.
Just in time. She peered through the needles and watched the recovery teams enter the park.
Thank you. She thought fervently. Squeezing her thigh, her hand grew sticky from the wetness soaking through. Guards were left at every entrance she could see. And more people swarmed throughout the park and perimeter of it, but the two Hunters who had tracked her last night were still with them unfortunately. Damn, they just aren’t going to give up are they?
In the daylight she had the opportunity to admire them from her hiding place. Her tired mind started to drift again, scraps of memory resurfaced. I had forgotten just how beautiful their wings can be, Mom and Dad died so long ago and I’ve only seen Robin once since he changed.
The Hunters were both fully fledged Valkyries. Their supple wings swept from the middle of their shoulder blades down to their knees; the membranes were dusky in color like a good suntan. Moving with an unconscious animal grace that set them apart from the rest of the people, they quartered the park searching for her. Alone, as their handlers watched from the paths, they gave the impression of wildness… but not quite. She knew wild Valkyries, these two were tame; you could almost see the leashes that held them back, stopping them from being what they could be.
She watched as they circled through the park stalking her, trying to catch her scent and flush her out. Her heart pounded in her chest and she clung to the tree. They paused near her bench. The dark haired one dropped to his knees and brushed his fingers over the seat. The blond one stiffened, but then both turned to look toward her hiding place. Oh no.
Her breathing suspended. Then she swallowed convulsively. She couldn’t take her eyes off the slowly approaching figures. The two continuously scanned the bushes they passed, but their gazes always returned to the tree she was in. Pressure built in her head. The vise squeezed and she gasped. The two Hunters heads jerked in her direction.
It’s them. They’re doing this. She shivered. The sudden desire to go to them shook her. Something about them called to her, pulled at her, demanded she respond to them. No. Leave me alone.
She whimpered as she fought the pull. Something her mother once said gave her an idea. She pushed back with her mind, focused all her thoughts into a visual. Built every minute detail until it was real in her head. The perfect hiding place to keep her safe. A wall for her mind to hide behind.
Nickolas entered the park and looked around, using all of his senses to actively search for her. He barely noticed the teams that secured the exits, responding to their signals almost absentmindedly. He could feel that she was near, but he couldn’t see any obvious sign of her presence in the park. He looked around more slowly, his intensity sharpened.
“She’s nearby, Nick.” Christoff confirmed next to him.
Nickolas nodded agreement. Every Valkyrie, once they had reached a certain stage in their emergence, could feel when another of their kind was nearby. He wasn’t even going to consider why he could feel her so strongly already. Strolling with his brother along the paths, he concentrated, trying to pinpoint her location. Though, this is different. I’ve always felt the other Hunters, but now, even Chris feels different; clearer, stronger, with more layers and a lot more depth. It’s almost like a blindfold has been removed and now I can see. But I have no idea what I’m looking at, since I’ve never seen anything like this before in my entire life.
An elusive whiff caught his attention and he stopped. Christoff looked at him. “She was near here.”
“The bench.” His brother stalked over to it.
They both circled it, then Nickolas saw the stain. He dropped to his knees and reached out. A gasp escaped his control.
“Nickolas.” Christoff snapped.
“She felt us and fled.” He pinned his brother with a glare. “In that direction.” They both turned towards the west entrance to the park.
Now with a direction, they resumed their hunt.
“Can you pinpoint her location Nick? I can still feel her but that’s about it.”
“She’s definitely in this direction. Close. But I don’t know how close.”
She felt like a loadstone pulling him. He had to find her. All his concentration turned inward in an attempt to interpret this new broadening of his senses. The bright beacon of her presence flared in his mind’s eye, then blackness.
Stunned, Nickolas froze for a second, his mental balance thrown by the sudden shift. “She’s blocked me!” Nickolas swore incredulously and turned to look at Christoff.
“I lost her too. That shouldn’t be possible. How could she hide her presence?” Christoff asked in a whisper.
“How has she done anything so far?” He growled, frustrated, Nickolas snapped his wings open and closed then motioned the teams over to him. “She’s close. Finish searching the park, then go door to door starting with all the houses bordering the park.” Turning to Christoff, he worked on reining in his temper. “Come on Chris, let’s see if we can’t break the block she’s raised and pick up her trail.”
Up in the tree, Jessica watched the teams disperse and start checking the nearest houses. She could still feel the dark haired Hunter pushing occasionally, but as he and his wingmate got farther away, it lessened. Finally, the teams had all moved on and she slowly let her guard down, relaxing her mental muscles. As soon as she did, exhaustion hit and she swayed, nearly pitching out of the tree. She just barely managed to catch herself in time.
How long have I been at this? Gods, I almost can’t remember when I slept last. She rested her head against the tree trunk, weeping quietly and wishing she could just lie down and sleep. I am so tired.
But that’s not going to stop them, is it? the insistent little voice inside her prodded. Sniffling, she gathered her wits, wiping her face on her shoulder and started to climb down. Hanging from the last branch, she dropped to the ground. Her injured leg buckled underneath her and she stifled a cry, hoping the noise didn’t alert any of the recovery team. Limping, she tried to rub the pitch off of her hands as she made her way to the edge of the park. Keeping an eye out for any stray searchers, she skirted the shrubbery near the houses.
Ducking between two buildings that were well away from any of the paved entrances, she used their plantings as cover to hide and look out onto the activity on the street. A lot more going on now than there was a few hours ago. It’s going to be nearly impossible to walk by unnoticed. At this rate I’m going to become the ten o’clock news.
The hope that had been sustaining her waned rapidly as she watched the numbers of people moving about. In her condition, she wouldn’t be able to pass unnoticed. Jessica crouched underneath the rhododendron, trying to figure a way out. A loud clang drew her attention to a work truck parked in front of a house three doors down. A painter had just finished loading his ladder onto the roof rack, after which he threw a tarp over the contents in the bed of the truck. Tension thrummed through her and a small spark of hope rekindled. Now if only the workman would move away… Yes! She hissed gleefully as he went back into the house. Slinking out from under the bush, she quickly slipped up to the truck, and lifting the tarp, crawled under it. Squirming around, she tried to quietly make a place among the paint cans and other paraphernalia, planting her hand straight into a wet paint tray in the process. “Ugh…man.” She grabbed a cloth and wiped most of it off before she finished shoving things out of her way. Easing down on her uninjured side, she felt blood trickle down the back of her thigh. She clamped her hand on it again. Finally able to rest her head, she fought the need to sleep.
The truck rocked, jerking Jessica awake. The door slammed and the workman started the car. Closing her eyes, she sighed and relaxed when the vehicle started wending its way through the twisting streets. But too quickly, it slowed to a halt. Why have we stopped? We only just started. They can’t know I’m here can they? Full blown panic a hairs breadth away, she held her breath and waited for the tarp to be pulled off the truck. But instead, she heard voices. Straining her ears, she could just make out what they said.
“I’m sorry for the inconvenience, ma’am, but we must ask you to get out.” A deep, masculine voice asked.
“What is going on?” She heard a woman reply nervously as car doors opened and closed.
“We need to search all vehicles leaving the area.”
“Sir, this one is clean.” A different voice called out.
“Thank you for your cooperation, ma’am. You may go.” The first voice said courteously and Jessica shivered as it seeped into her.
A softly mumbled reply and the car door closed. The truck rolled forward a car length.
“I’m sorry for the inconvenience, ma’am, but we must ask you and your children to please get out of the car.”
Hearing that deep voice recite the same litany, Jessica peeked out from under the canvas. Nothing. She couldn’t lift the tarp enough to see beyond the ground at the edge of the truck. Her hearing, though, had become acute enough for her to tell that the speaker wasn’t close to the truck yet. Slowly worming her way around so she didn’t rock the vehicle, and alert the driver to his stowaway, she reached the end of the tarp and peeked out the back of the truck. No cars were lined up behind them yet. Carefully, she eased to the ground behind the tailgate and crouched down by the bumper, she looked around the driver’s side. Three other cars were lined up in front of the painter’s truck. All stopped and waiting.
A woman stood in the middle of the road, watching the first car, trepidation on her face. The reason for her fear became apparent when another Valkyrie Hunter paced around the front of the vehicle to join her.
Groaning, Jessica dropped her head.
Great. Another Hunter. Just what I needed. Wearily, she raised her head and watched the scene unfold. The recovery team efficiently searched the interior of the van, followed by the roof and undercarriage. No way am I getting out in a vehicle. She scuttled over to the passenger side of the truck and looked around that side. Four kids stood on the sidewalk watching their car being swarmed over.
It was only a matter of time before another car came up behind, so, taking a deep breath and praying to any Deity who might care to listen, she pushed her leg and quickly ran, crouched, across the sidewalk to fall behind a hedge. Biting her lip to keep from crying out, Jessica squeezed her thigh and felt the blood drip off her fingers. Her breath hissed between her teeth but she regained her feet and turned back to check and see if she had been observed. The youngest child looked in her direction, but he turned away after a moment, apparently uninterested in her. Jessica closed her eyes for a second, then grimly turned and slipped into the back yard.
“Good afternoon sir, I’m sorry for the delay but we need to ask you to allow us access to your truck.” Donald stepped back so the workman could open his door and get out.
The man looked pointedly at Donald’s wings. “Sure, why not. Who believes in the constitution these days? Search warrants are just a waste of paper, anyway.” He grumbled. “Here, let me get that.” The painter quickly moved to the side of his truck and folded up the tarp. “So, what’s going on?”
Donald cast a brief glance at the workman before returning to overseeing the search. “We have a young woman who escaped the recovery teams trapped in this neighborhood. We just need to make sure she doesn’t hitch any rides past the check points.”
“Donald, I think you should see this.” One of the searchers called from the other side of the truck.
A note in the searchers voice focused his attention and Donald saw that the man looked intently at something in the back. Walking over, he saw what could possibly be blood in the back of the truck, along with a small handprint in some spilled paint. He glanced at the painter and asked, “Where you using any red paint?”
The workman shook his head no as he looked at the blood and the spilled paint. “I didn’t spill any.”
“Donald can you tell anything more in here?” The searcher asked.
They lowered the tailgate and he carefully crawled through the stuff in the truck. He gently touched the red puddle, rubbing the wetness between his fingers before raising it to his nose inhaling. “Definitely blood. And the print is way too small to belong to the workman.” Donald blinked slowly, a strange surge ran through him with the blood scent. “Stephen, call Nickolas, tell him we’ve found sign of her.” He shivered, then worked his way out of the truck, trying not to disturb what sign she left. Nickolas is going to want to have a look at this.
As his feet touched the ground, he could hear Stephen on the radio. “Sir, you need to come over to check point C, we’re at the northern exit. We have found sign of her.” The radio crackled and they heard the reply.
“Right. We’re on the way.”
Arriving at check point C, Nickolas and Christoff dropped down to land in the road. Giving his wings a shake to settle them in place, Nickolas walked over to where Donald and his team had the work truck detained.
“Nick. Chris.” The burly Valkyrie nodded his dark head in greeting. “We’ve got blood and a handprint in the bed of the truck. I figured you should take a closer look. Her scent is all over the back.”
Nickolas looked at the truck then at Christoff. Too risky for Chris to see. With this much blood involved, I’m bound to get hit hard. His brother had enough ammunition already. “Chris, you and Donald look around and see if you can find where her tracks start again. I’ll take the truck.”
“Sure thing, Nick. Donald, did you see or sense anything from her?”
“’Fraid not. I was focused on the cars in front of me.”
Nickolas listened to their conversation absently as he circled the truck. He could see her blood smeared in places all over the back. They were like hot spots on a thermal reading to his developing senses. Though so far, nothing pointed to where her injuries were, or how severe. That she was still losing blood was another worry to add on top of everything else. He stopped at the lowered tailgate where he bent down and inhaled. The scent pulled at him, stirring something inside that he couldn’t identify.
He crawled in and studied the cleared place she’d so recently occupied. Ok. Let’s try this again shall we? Nickolas took a deep breath before he hesitantly placed his hand into the largest spot of blood. He stiffened as a jumble of images assaulted his mind, stronger for having such a large quantity to act as a carrier. Nickolas hissed as everything she felt cascaded through him. Unconsciously, he clenched his thigh with his hand, holding the same spot as her wound, as the vision started. He could see her curled up in the truck, then hiding in the bushes watching Donald, then vaguely, a girl and some house. As the images flipped by, her emotional state flavored the knowledge he received, her fear and anxiety, how tired she really was. The true essence of her mind seeped into him, just how demoralized and disordered her thoughts were becoming. A feeling of kinship rose, and Nickolas regretted not being able to give her what she craved so badly, to be left alone. He understood that feeling all too well. He pulled away and quickly wiped his hand with a rag to break the images.
“Humm…” Something really is happening to me, it’s not just my imagination. He continued to absently wipe his hand. Some of what I saw seemed to happen after she left the truck. I wonder what that means? He stared vacantly out over the cab of the truck into the setting sun. How am I doing this? I’ve never been able to before.
“Nick…Nick, are you alright?” The hand flapping in front of his face and the question from Donald pulled Nickolas out of his trance.
He glanced at the other Hunter and responded absently, his mind still working over his questions. “Yes, sorry, just lost in thought for a moment. She only left a few minutes ago, probably because the truck was stopped. She’s weakening from hunger and blood loss, I don’t know how much longer she can go on without fatally harming herself. She ran off that way.”
Surprise flashed across Donald’s face and he asked, “Um, really? That’s a lot more detail than I expected.”
Realizing what he had just said and done, Nickolas was brought back to himself, and looked into Donald’s eyes. The Hunter stared at him strangely. Unbidden, energy surged through Nickolas, filling him, stirring the hair at the nape of his neck, marking the Hunter in front of him.
Donald shifted uneasily, his attention riveting on Nickolas. Nickolas felt something pass between them, a thread of awareness, like a snake’s questing tongue, fed him knowledge. The Hunter’s presence was muted somehow. Blocked. Definitely fuzzier than how Christoff felt at the moment. Emotions flooded Donald’s eyes.
Nickolas tried to pull back, reigning in the flow of energy. The subordinate Hunter looked away but not before Nickolas saw the heightened concern aimed at him.
Donald’s eyes shuttered, but not before Nickolas saw the concern etch itself deep, the Hunter nodded. “Sorry, Alpha.”
Nickolas sighed at the formality that he’d induced with his clipped comment and climbed out of the truck. He wished he could redirect both of the other Hunter’s concerns, and leave him free to explore this new territory without hindrance. Ha, not likely. They’ll both be glued to me now. Disgusted, Nickolas waved in the direction Christoff searched. “Has he found anything, Donald?”
“We think so. He sent me over here to fetch you.”
Nickolas paused to look back into the truck at the spot where she had hidden. Questions floated through his mind, but then he gave himself a shake and followed Donald over to join Christoff. “So what did you find, Chris?”
“Take a look at this and tell me what you think.” His brother led him a few houses down the road. Behind some bushes in a front yard, Christoff pointed to the ground.
Crouching down, Nickolas examined the skid in the dirt. “Yes, this is her. She’s bleeding much more.” He stirred the dirt with a finger. “We need this ended.”
“Nickolas, Christoff, I found a print over here.” Donald called from the fence to the back yard.
Moving to examine the print with Christoff, Nickolas nodded. “Donald, keep the search going at the road. Come on Chris let’s track her to ground.”
He stood and stretched his wings then leapt up and grabbed the top of the fence, pulling himself up. He crouched on the top rail for a moment before spreading his wings; he drifted down in the gathering twilight. Christoff flowed over the fence immediately after.
Her eyes wary and on the lookout for more searchers, Jessica slunk from yard to yard like a feral cat, hiding in the fringes, constantly on the alert. For several hours, she’d managed to stay out of sight by going through the network of suburban yards, but her fragmenting mind made coping difficult. Fatigue, pain, and the change itself took their toll. She put her hand to her head as she swayed to a stop. A moment later she sank into a crouch and fisted her hands in her hair.
“Can’t think anymore.” She mumbled pressing her hands into her temples and scrunched up her eyes. “Gotta think, gotta think, gotta think.” She chanted, then scrubbed her hands over her face. They came away wet. “I can’t take much more of this.”
Her hands fell, she looked up and stared unseeing into the distance. I’m losing. I can’t do this anymore. Even if I get away from them, I can’t escape myself.
The sound and scent of someone nearing snapped her out of her daze and she jumped up, startled. A young, teenage girl approached her. Jessica backed up, baring her teeth, and growling deep in her throat like a feral dog. The vicious sound helped to bring her a little ways back from the brink, and she cut it off abruptly.
The girl held out a hand fearlessly and took a step closer. “Shhh. It’s alright, it’s ok, shh.” Another step. “They’ve already been here.”
Jessica’s eyes flicked from side to side searching, for a way out… or for a trap.
“The recovery team has already searched my house. They shouldn’t come back, and my parents work late.” The girl took another step. “I want to help you. I don’t like the recovery people. They came and took my brother away and I haven’t seen him since.”
The girl’s steady progress pushed Jess against a fence as she backed away. Trapped she started to tremble; the part of her that wanted to defend warred with the sane part. “I’m so tired.” She whispered.
The kid slowly advanced. “Come inside, I’ll keep watch while you rest. Please, I really do want to help you.”
Confused, she stood there trapped by the teen’s eyes as she drew closer. Finally, the girl slowly laid a hand on her arm. She flinched violently at the touch. Pulling lightly, the girl coaxed her into the house. Numb, with her brain all slow and fuzzy, Jess allowed her to lead her up a half flight of stairs to a bedroom on the front side of the house. At the sight of the bed, Jessica groaned and pulled her hand free. She stumbled toward it falling down on the soft mattress.
The girl giggled. “Wait, you need to take your backpack off.” With her help Jessica managed to struggle out of it and her sweatshirt. But that was as far as she could manage with her exhaustion. She fell back over onto her stomach, sighing deeply. The last thing she was aware of was someone pulling her shoes off and covering her with a blanket.
Christoff raised his water bottle to his lips and took a long drink, though he didn’t take his eyes off his brother. Nickolas paced the length of a fence, looking for some trace of the fledgling. Christoff felt his temper surge, so he wrapped another line around it in an attempt to keep it contained, and focused his attention on Nickolas. Just like himself, his brother was showing increased signs of missing yesterday’s dose of the aggression stabilizer. But it was more than that. It wasn’t like this was the first time any of them had been late with their pills, but Nickolas’ responses, and if he wanted to be truthful his own also, were different. Nickolas was doing his best to hide what was happening but… I’m too attuned to him for him to be successful in hiding it. And I’m sure Donald noticed as well. At least everyone else still seems unaware. For the moment, it was up to him to protect Nickolas. Somehow. Twitching his wings, he took another drink.
“We’re missing something, Chris. We’ve spent the last couple of hours looking through half a dozen back yards. It’s dark, and we haven’t seen another trace of her.”
“We know she’s still here somewhere, Nick, we’ve both caught her scent. You don’t think someone would be insane enough to hide her from us, do you?”
Muttering something about some girl, Nickolas launched into the sky. He sailed over the house, leaving Christoff cursing. Slamming the water bottle back into his leg pocket, Christoff followed him, wondering what girl he was talking about. His brother’s silhouette dropped down to land a couple of blocks away, and Chris circled once, watching Nickolas stalk up to Flynn, who stood near the van.
“Flynn, get me the printouts of the houses already searched.” Christoff heard his brother demand as he landed next to the van. After folding his wings, he settled back against it and watched Nickolas start pacing, running his hand through his hair restlessly as he waited for Flynn to bring him the reports. The door to the van opened and Jules handed them out with a flourish. Nickolas grabbed them, flipping through, obviously looking for something specific. Part way through the stack he stopped and looked at an entry with more detail before he held the whole thing out to him. “What do you think?”
Reading it, Christoff looked back up at Nickolas, nodding his head. “There was a young girl home when we searched. Since her brother fledged, she might not have been afraid of Jessica.”
“Look at the address.”
“That’s not far from where we lost her trail.”
“Bingo. Flynn, I want all teams to converge on this address,” he handed the papers over to their teammate. “I believe Jessica is being hidden there.”
A rough shake to her shoulder pulled Jessica out of a deep sleep. “Hurry, get up. The Hunters are coming back.”
Jessica blinked in the sudden light and sat up, shaking her head to clear the cobwebs from her mind. The girl was gone already and the sound of raised voices in the entryway pushed her into movement. She ignored the stiffness of her over worked body and grabbed her shoes, putting them on. It took a moment when she tried to stand for her injured leg to support her. One labored step and she reached for her sweatshirt thrown over a chair. The second her hand touched the fabric, a shiver went up her spine and she froze. Her fist clenched in her shirt and she closed her eyes, knowing her worst fear had just been realized. Straightening up, she slowly turned toward the doorway.
Standing there filling the door, and blocking her escape, was one of the Hunters. The dark one she had heard someone call Nickolas. He was tall, not as broad as the other one, lean with a dancers’ sinuous grace. His dark hair flowed down past his shoulders. He radiated an aura of controlled power that frightened Jessica more than any other Hunter in her memory. Meeting his eyes warily, she waited for him to make the first move.
Nickolas watched her assess him while he did the same. She was favoring her right leg. He could see where the blood had soaked through the material of her jeans and he was amazed that she could stand on it to face him. Something inside of him started to relax now that he had her cornered. She looked exhausted. He wasn’t sure how the kid had managed to wake her, or how the fledgling was managing to be coherent enough to function.
Her eyes flicked around the room, and he focused on them. They were the key. Nickolas folded his arms across his chest and her body tensed like a deer about to spring. Cocking his head, he realized that he could feel her presence again. Either she’s not blocking me anymore or it’s the proximity. But it’s more than just her presence, I can feel her emotion. Waves of fear and pain poured off of her and into Nickolas, splintering his normal control and level of concentration.
Is this her? Or me? He continued to maintain eye contact as he spoke softly, hoping not to startle her. “Jessica, you need to come with me. It’s all right; we aren’t here to hurt you. We’re here to take you somewhere safe. Help you get through this.”
Her eyes flashed in annoyance and she let out a snort. “Yeah right, bucko. Not a chance. I know who you’re with. Just keep away from me.”
Surprised by her response, Nickolas took a step into the room without thinking. Her eyes widened in alarm and she backed up looking wildly around. Annoyed with himself, Nickolas sighed as he loosened his wings, spreading them slightly to keep the door blocked, and watched her closely. She kept darting panicked glances at him while easing back as far away from him as she could manage in the room.
“Please, don’t make this so hard. You’ll not win. There’s nowhere left for you to go.” He stated calmly. Something, some sense he couldn’t name, hit him as her face cleared of all emotion. Nickolas shifted nervously.
She straightened her spine and put weight on her injured leg, a feverish, desperate light filled her eyes. “There is still one place.” She said softly.
With a sudden burst of understanding, he realized what she intended and he lunged forward, forgetting about keeping the door blocked. He tripped on the table she knocked into his path, yelling, “No, Jessica, wait.”
She turned, a chair from the table in her hands, and threw it through the window glass, diving out on its heels.
Untangling himself, Nickolas reached the window too late. Through the lights of the street lamps he watched her crash through the interlaced branches of the trees. She was able to slow her descent by grabbing branches, but she still landed hard in the fallen oak leaves littering the ground. Nickolas held his breath until she shifted. Come on, come on. He shook his head in worry and leaned out the window. He almost couldn’t believe what lengths she was willing to go to.
Was I any less desperate? He remembered.
His brother approached her carefully, stopping just in front of her, leaves swirling to a stop at his feet. She struggled to her hands and knees, gasping for breath.
Christoff’s voice floated up to Nickolas. “Impressive exit. You’ve certainly led us a merry chase.” Christoff commented then looked up at the window. “She’s alright, Nickolas.”
“Leave me alone.” Nickolas heard her growl just before she plunged her shoulder into his brother’s stomach, taking him by surprise, then punching him in the groin. Christoff doubled over and fell to the ground, gasping for breath. She scrambled to her feet but her leg gave out and she fell over Christoff with a scream.
Nickolas watched in amazement as she forced her body to her command, rolling off of Christoff and disappeared through the trees into the dark.
He growled viciously at the tree branches that stopped him from being able to give chase, settling instead for yelling down at his brother. “Damn it, Christoff, that was incredibly stupid.” Nickolas pushed away from the window and took his radio off of his belt snapping into it, “Flynn, do you copy, please help Chris out front, over.”
“I’m on it Nick, over.”
“All units, she escaped. Repeat, she escaped. I want a perimeter around this section of neighborhood that she cannot slip through. Over.”
Frustrated, and not a little scared for her, Nickolas turned to the rest of the room. He picked up her sweatshirt, finding her knapsack underneath. Grabbing it, he rummaged through the bag as he walked out of the room, then stuffed the sweatshirt into it. Stalking out of the house, he headed over to Flynn and Christoff.
“There, laddybuck, you got your breath back?” Flynn asked as he helped Christoff to his feet.
“Are you alright?” Nickolas asked grimly.
“Yeah. She just broke my balls and knocked the wind out of me.” Straightening up he took a deep breath. “Sorry, Nickolas.”
“Hey, she jumped through the window on me.” He turned to Flynn, “Coordinate with all the teams. I want this part of the neighborhood closed off. Let’s keep her squeezed into as small an area as possible. Tell them to watch out. She could do anything.” Shaking his head, Nickolas muttered. “She jumped through the damn window. This woman has a death wish.”
“We should have her location pinned down soon, Nickolas.” Flynn responded soothingly before walking off through the leaves, talking into his radio.
“Well, Nick, what’s the plan? It’s obvious that she isn’t going to come quietly if we get her cornered again. Are we going to dart her?”
Nickolas looked up into the branches of the oak and sighed. “Only if we have to. She needs to eat or her metabolism is going to become unstable.” He tossed the knapsack to Christoff, before he continued, “All she had with her was trail mix. If we knock her out long enough to get her back to the Facility it might be too long for her body to be without food. So we’ll try and kill two birds with one stone. We’ll set a trap and bait it with drugged meat. Hopefully her hunger will override her better judgment and she’ll take the bait. Then she’ll get the food to tide her over, and we’ll be able to take her back without a fight.”
Christoff nodded his head. “Sounds like a good plan to me. What’s my part?”
“I want you to set the bait. Everyone else is to stay out of sight. I’ll be the only one who will get close to her. I’m pretty sure I can stay off her radar, and that way I can be sure of how much she ingests. And if she doesn’t take the bait, I’ll be in a position to trank her before she can get away again.” Nickolas’ radio crackled.
“Nickolas, we have her sighted in a tree about four blocks from where you are. Over.”
“Copy that, Jules. Flynn, pull all teams back. I don’t want her spooked. Under no circumstances is she to realize we know her location. I have an idea, but for it to work I can’t have her running again. Over.” Turning his attention back to Christoff, Nickolas hooked his radio back on his belt. “Take Gamma team and get that trap set.”
Christoff snapped to attention, giving a quick salute. “Aye aye, mon Capitan.”
Shaking his head, Nick smiled and waved Christoff away.
Grinning, Christoff turned and gestured at Jeff the Gamma team’s leader to get his group and follow. He strode through the shadows cast by the trees over to the medic van and poked his head in, calling to the youthful looking man inside. “Jays, I need some sort of tranquilizer that can be mixed into meat. Nick has sent me on a mission to set a trap.”
The lithe, blond haired doctor turned toward the door, relief in his soft blue eyes. “That’s an excellent idea! I’ve been worried about her health, since it’s taking so long.”
“Yeah, tell me about it.” Christoff replied quietly. The sight of her, how hurt she had looked, right before she had floored him, left him sober. The only other person he knew who could push themselves to the limit like this was Nickolas. Something about this whole scenario didn’t smell right. Jays’ muttering to himself brought Christoff’s attention back from where it had wandered.
He watched the deceptively fragile form of his grounded friend as the doctor walked his fingers over the bottles in one of the cabinets. He pulled one out, looking at the label. Shaking his head, he put it back and took out a different one. “This, I think, would be best.” Jays said. The doctor turned back toward him and asked, “How much does she weigh?”
“About a hundred and twenty five pounds.”
“It’ll take me a minute to measure out the proper dosage, I’ll bring it out.”
“Thanks Jays.” He pushed the door shut and turned to find Gamma team assembled and waiting for him. Bracing his back against a tree, he looked the four men over. “Ok guy’s here’s the scoop. We have her located, and we’re to set the trap.”
He pulled a scrap of paper out of his pocket and wrote down the address of the house then handed it to the Gamma leader. “Jeff, I need you to quickly get a pound of hamburger and meet us at that house.”
“Sure thing, Chris.”
The van door opened spilling light out onto the pavement as Jays stepped out. “Here you go, Chris.” Jays handed him a small bottle full of a thick liquid. “This should be enough even if she doesn’t eat all of it. It’s pretty fast acting. Make sure whoever mixes it in wears gloves, unless they want to take a nap. And be sure to mix it thoroughly, I’ve calculated extra since it will have an unknown level of cooking. With this much she should start to go under in just a couple of minutes.”
Holding the bottle up and swirling the contents, Christoff replied, “With any luck, Jays, you’ll have a passenger in half an hour.”
“I’ll keep my fingers crossed.”