Flight- Chapter One
Explosions rocked the night. Nickolas Sinclair stretched his wings and raced across the sky, the moonlight turning the dark membrane of his wings pale as it rippled between the struts. The Facility, the place Nick had spent all but the first ten years of his life, blasted into rubble behind him while the sabotage Ian had triggered continued to cascade through the buildings, destroying all of the information Gabriel had sought. The joy of watching Gabriel dive for cover faded as the thought of his grandfather intruded. Cold December night air burned his cheeks and he pumped his wings. Grief needed to wait.
He angled his flight to the north. Away from the rendezvous.
I can’t lead the hounds to the others. Lose myself in the foothills? Robin was north.
Jessica’s brother had helped keep them out of Gabriel’s trap before. His Flight would likely help Nick again.
Lead the hounds to the north. Away from Jessica, away from the rest of his clan.
A cross wind whipped the long, dark strands of his hair across his face, a biting cold that caused a new worry to intrude. There was nothing he could do to keep his people safe from the weather, but if he could ensure that was their only enemy for the journey….
The feel of Jessica’s spark slowly pulsed in the back of his mind, and if he concentrated he could trace Christoff’s energy as well. A result of the binding with Jessica and the blood bond with Chris, the new sensations unnerved him. He tried to ignore the invasive intimacy.
Chris will keep her safe.
He pushed harder. The longer his head start, the better.
Clouds scudded across the moon and the trees below turned dark. On a powerful down stroke, his flight muscles seized, clenching in a spasm. A groan escaped from him as he pushed through the pain, unable to maintain his speed. Tonight’s hunt for Jessica, followed by the binding, had already tapped his strength. His body did not approve of this abuse.
He cursed his lost stamina, cursed Ian for grounding him.
His last sight of Ian suddenly flashed before him, and his anger translated into the powerful sweep of his wings. His breath caught and he pushed the painful memory aside.
Damn you, Ian.
The sound of Ian’s vengeance faded as the miles sped by. He pushed himself faster, the pain a dull throb, his gaze fixed on the horizon. He shook his head then gave a vicious down sweep, refocusing his attention on listening for the sound of helicopters.
A piercing stab suddenly lanced fire through his brain, smoldering arms of invading energy trying to dig their way in. His vision dimmed and he lost altitude as he struggled for control. Gabriel. The more experienced Alpha’s mind overwhelmed him. Recklessly, he yanked on his power to weave a crude psychic barrier, allowing him the time to tune his mental wall and hide his presence from the other Valkyrie. Mind finally clear, Nickolas skimmed the treetop, his silhouette racing like Peter Pan’s shadow through the patches of moonlight.
A low chuckle whispered across Nick’s outer mind. *Nickolas…I know you’re out there.* Gabriel’s voice sang softly. *You’ve managed to hide your power signature from me, but not before I got your heading. I have a lot of eyes, we will find you.*
The compulsion to respond to Gabriel gained strength, insidious as it wormed through and tried to control him. He angled up to regain his lost altitude and pushed on. Gabriel’s failure in his first attempt to recover him wouldn’t delay the helicopters, and the other Alpha was right. They would find him. There was only a short window of time to try and gain distance. He needed to make it to the foothills, where there were fewer roads for a ground pursuit. If he could lose them in the wilderness, he might be able to make it.
Under normal conditions he’d be able to make the flight in a couple of hours, but dodging pursuit and fighting total exhaustion? Suddenly the foothills seemed an awfully long way away.
He climbed higher and traded the safety of the low altitude shadows for a speed-increasing thermal up high.
But in the pressing silence of the night sky, Nick could not keep the memories at bay. His thoughts twisted as his feelings tangled with them. Clenching his fist, he felt the bandage wrapped about his wrist tighten.
Flashes of Ian.
Shaking his head, Nick flapped and rose another hundred feet.
Ian placing the gun to his temple. The familiar green eyes staring into his.
Growling, Nick pushed himself harder, picking up speed. But the exertion didn’t do the trick this time. His hand shaking, he rubbed his eyes.
The sight of his grandfather’s body slumped over the desk returned to haunt him.
“Damn it, Ian. Why?” he shouted into the night.
His breathing rasped between his lips, but he still pushed the pace, still tried to outrun the memories and the grief that threatened to crush him.
Nickolas ruthlessly stomped the feeling. He didn’t have the time to deal with this. Forcing his mind along a different track, Nickolas realized he did have another fact to focus on. He knew Jessica was still alive, even if he didn’t know her condition. Part of her sat quietly in the center of him.
The unnerving nature of the new sensations suddenly seemed like a good mental alternative to the hovering grief. He grasped the waiting distraction and delved into the new pathways through his mind.
The willingness to finally explore opened a mental vista inside him—a dreamscape that he could walk through lucidly—and he realized he’d been here before. He’d found it when he’d tried to use his talents to look for Chris and Donald in the Facility.
The deep well of water rippled with his breath. He studied the pulsing lines that plunged out of sight. Not yet knowing how to read them, this kept his attention for a while as he flew. He plucked at and then concentrated on the lines that felt like his brother, traced a mental finger through them. He could feel worry from Christoff, but nothing worse. Relieved, he turned his attention back to his surroundings.
After everything else that had happened tonight, they had to be ok.
He pushed the thoughts away.
Clouds covered the moon. The dark towering mass was pushing in from the north. The scent of wet filled his nostrils. Nickolas could feel the cold front flowing down and the warmer air he was riding pushing the cold mass under itself. He shivered a bit, even with all the exertion. Then the distant sound of the helicopters finally reached his ears. They would be on him in a matter of minutes. Scanning the ground far below, he looked for a place to drop down and hide.
Not a lot of cover given the season. Acres of open field spread before him. The forest land was still too distant to reach in time. He veered left, dropping altitude and quickening his pace. A dim light shone ahead and Nickolas arrowed toward it. The thump of the helicopters grew louder.
Flying close enough to the grass that he had to watch out for fences, he skimmed the contours of land into a farmyard then back-winged to a stop beside an old barn. The dim light that had led him here came from an upper story room in the farmhouse. The barn door stood ajar. Nick slid it open and slipped inside. It smelled of summer. Bales of dried grass filled the loft above him, and the cows lowed softly as they shifted nervously at the sudden appearance of a stranger. He pulled the door almost closed and peered through the crack out into the night.
Four helicopters appeared, spread out over the distant horizon. Two of them flew low and angled spotlights on the fields as they passed. In a matter of moments they were over the farmyard, circling around it. One set down in the grass behind the barn. The other three continued on in their search.
“Damn.” Nick slid the door shut then spun to look at the interior of the barn. “By morning the whole countryside will know about me.”
He scrambled up the ladder to the second floor and peered out the hayloft door, watching the team search the yard. Two of the men went to the door of the farmhouse and knocked while the other two continued to scan the area.
Should be a standard team of six, which means two still in the helicopter. Now what? I can’t get into the air without one of them seeing me.
Lights came on in the house. Time was running out. He turned to search the interior of the barn.
Nowhere to hide from the recovery team.
His Sight flashed, graying out his vision. A cellar door. There was a cellar door somewhere in this barn. Leaping down from the loft, Nickolas slowly scanned the area. A faint tugging drew his attention into a back corner. Behind a couple of garbage cans used for grain, he found an old padlocked door. The top of it only came to his waist, the rest hidden beneath the floor. He ran his hand through his wind tangled hair before he realized the floor had a hinged section. He shifted the cans farther aside and lifted the trapdoor.
Descending a few steps, he grasped the padlock securing the door. Nick closed his eyes and felt his way through the device. It snapped open. The metal rasped as he unhooked it, then he pulled the door open, wincing at the slight scrape across the ground. He quickly turned and pulled the cans up to the edge of the steps so they looked more normal, then he entered the dark room and pulled the door shut.
Now, for the hard part.
The door opened out so there hadn’t been a way for him to lower the floor section back down. Resting his forehead against the brittle wood, he concentrated on the trapdoor on the other side, though he hadn’t had a lot of practice using this talent in the Facility. With a lot of strain, he slowly pulled the floor panel back into place with his mind. The cold and damp settled into him as his warm muscles cooled and he shivered. Then he started on the more difficult task of replacing the lock. Power poured out of him as he worked, a greater dexterity needed to thread the small lock back onto the hasp. He felt like a toddler trying to pick up beads.
After what felt like an eternity, he heard the lock settle on the hasp and he snapped it shut. The rush of power stopped and Nickolas slid to the ground. Fatigue settled like a blanket and he waited, listening.
A few minutes later, the outer barn door scraped on its track.
“Watch out. We know he isn’t in the house, so if he’s here, he’ll be in the barn.”
Nickolas heard the grounded whisper and shook his head. They never could understand how much Valkyrie hearing was improved compared to theirs. Footsteps scuffed across the floor. All four of the recovery searchers were in the barn.
Closing his eyes, Nickolas leaned his head against the door and tried to control the tremors invading his limbs as the fatigue and cold set in. In the blackness, the searchers’ voices seemed extra loud.
“Nothing so far in the stalls except for cows. Disgusting creatures,” one muttered.
The stern voice of the one Nickolas decided must be the leader snapped out, “They aren’t the creature you need to worry about, Craig, so stay on your toes.” More shuffling.
“I’m not finding anything in the loft.”
“You’ve searched through the hay?”
“Yes, sir. As well as I can. I can’t see how he could have gotten too far in by himself, sir. It’s too tightly stacked and he wouldn’t have had that long to be able to move it.”
The leader growled in frustration.
Footsteps came nearer his hiding place and stopped. “Hey, there’s a door here.”
Nickolas tensed, holding his breath at the sound of the searchers moving swiftly to converge on the cellar door where he hid.
“Yeah, and it’s padlocked. You think he locked himself in?” One of them scoffed.
Irritation laced the leader’s voice. “Let’s go. We need to move on. Gabriel wants us back in the air.”
At the sound of the recovery team’s departure, Nickolas dropped his head to his knees. His eyes started to mist and he fought the tears back. The events of the evening replayed in an endless loop of snapshots he could no longer push away.
His parents alive.
His brother carrying Jessica away.
The rest of his Valkyries.
Ian’s death. That was the center of the storm. The one solid reality out of all his worries. The one inescapable fact.
Ian was gone.
Wrenching his thoughts back to the present, Nick took stock of his situation. For the moment he was safe, but he couldn’t stay here long. The hum of the helicopter filtered through the walls and he relaxed a little more. But every time he closed his eyes, he kept seeing Ian.
The man who had raised him and his brother.
He had never really been their grandfather except during their youngest days. He had been a surrogate parent after their parents died, then leader of their little band of Valkyries at the Facility. Memories of the strange life they had led sped past faster than he could grasp. It was much more of a dichotomy for him than it was for his brother. Chris didn’t really remember their life before the Facility. Nick did. He remembered their parents and their grandparents. The house they had lived in. He remembered evening meals and holidays and playing with their dog, Shadow, in the front yard. But most of all, he remembered the pain of their parents’ deaths. After all, he had been ten years old when his world had collapsed.
I can’t believe you’ve kept this from us all these years, Ian. I don’t know if I can believe you.
Nickolas lifted his head from his knees and let it fall back against the door. “They are not alive. They can’t be,” he whispered into the darkness. The damp earth of the root cellar had seeped into his muscles, stiffening them.
I need to get out of here before I seize up. And this is only the beginning.
With a sigh he pushed to his feet and stretched, then he concentrated on the door once more. It took a little longer to get out then it had to get in, but after a few minutes he heard the lock thump to the floor. He pushed the door open. After putting everything back how he found it, he climbed up to the loft where he could get warm in the hay. Tucking himself into a crevice between several bales, Nickolas curled up and pillowed his head on his arms.
Now that they’ve caught up to me I should let them get ahead before I continue on. I didn’t realize just how much flight muscle I had lost during my confinement. I’m much more tired than I should be.
A little over an hour later, he pushed the hayloft doors wide and launched out into the night. Skimming over the fields, he worked his way toward the treed hillsides. He flew low, skirting the woodlands and taking a more circuitous route so he could keep cover nearby. As the hours passed, he found himself forced to the ground more and more frequently by the search. When the moon set, he dropped down to a road to give his wings a rest. The farther north he’d come, the more distance fell between farms and towns, but he was still in too populated a region. Still not far enough into the foothills, let alone the safety of the wilderness. Once into the Cascades proper, it would take a lot more effort for Gabriel to recover him. Lack of roads would help make a difference in evening up the odds.
Dawn was still a few hours off. Nickolas paused on the road to stretch his wings. Slowly extending them, he did a couple of exercises in preparation to take to the air once more. The crunch of gravel on pavement echoed through the trees and he froze. He cocked his head to listen for a second, then with a down sweep to lift him higher, he jumped the barbed wire fence bordering the road.
Scrambling through the thick layer of decaying leaves for several feet, Nickolas leapt again and caught the branch of a large maple. He swung himself up into a crook of the tree and hunkered down against the rough bark of the trunk to watch. He had barely gotten settled when a line of jeeps running without lights drove past his hiding place. All were equipped with night goggles and scanned the sides of the road. His plan to occupy Gabriel’s men seemed to be working better than he’d anticipated. The number of people out looking for him gave him hope that the others were free and clear, even if it did make things somewhat complicated for him now.
The last jeep drove slowly by and Nickolas relaxed against the support of the tree. But as soon as he closed his eyes, he saw Ian again. Swearing, he slammed his head into the bark of the trunk to try and knock the visual out of his mind. The memory of Gabriel’s taunting laughter took its place, along with the feel of the other Alpha’s mature power. He was a toddler up against a grown man. A snarl slipped past his lips and he leapt to the ground.
He reviewed the play-by-play of his confrontations with Gabriel as he worked his way farther from the road. The finesse and strength the older Valkyrie employed. Nick didn’t have the luxury of twenty more years to gain the same level of skill, or more to the point, the ability to surpass him. A growl rumbled in his chest.
After a few minutes of trekking through the trees, he found a clearing large enough for him to get into the air. Once off the ground, he rose to the highest altitude he could maintain for an extended length of time. That would get him out of sight of the ground searchers, but the trade-off made him much more vulnerable to the helicopters. His only hope lay in getting into unpopulated terrain before daybreak.
He needed to reach the foothills of the Cascades.
* * *
The terrain skimmed by below. Christoff flew through the moonlight, his wing beats heavy. He pulled Jessica’s unconscious body tight to his chest and continued to scan the houses, business districts, and countryside for trouble. A cold wind had kicked up and he tried to keep the emergency blanket he and his brother had wrapped up around her tucked in, but the foil resisted.
Each wing beat felt heavier than the last as the extra weight strained his flight muscles. Thank you, Jays, for spotting that weak anchor muscle. If you hadn’t insisted on those exercises… He didn’t want to imagine this flight otherwise.
He changed the focus of his search below. He needed a rest. A dark open space resolved itself into an unlit park. He landed in a flurry of wings. Knees buckling from the extra weight, he groaned and set Jessica down in the damp grass near a water spigot. Drained, he just sat for a moment, his arms lying loosely in his lap as the cramped muscles spasmed.
When he could move, he took a careful drink of the cold water out of the faucet. The water chilled him inside as the crisp December air stiffened his muscles from the outside, now that he wasn’t keeping warm with exertion. He fished the map Nick had given him out of his pocket and oriented himself in relation to the rendezvous point. Ultimately, worry about Jessica getting chilled pushed him on sooner than his body was ready for. He struck out across the sky looking for the river he needed to follow.
After what seemed like hours, the derelict train trestle that served as the landmark for the rendezvous loomed up ahead, a dark shadow across the ribbon of water. Chris flew along the bank line looking for any sign of the rest of his clan. He landed on the beach where the sand and dirt had been churned up from numerous feet. They had clearly been here, and not that long ago from the wetness of the prints. He walked to the tree line and settled Jessica on a bed of fallen leaves, tucking the blanket around her again, then stretched his muscles.
*Donald? Kieran? Hello?* He skimmed his gaze over the area. Nothing but the normal sounds of night surrounded him, and Chris swore at how often he’d had to stop to rest. *Donald, where are you?*
He turned another circuit. *Will someone please answer me?*
His shoulders dropped in defeat and he slumped down next to Jessica. Little tremors ran over her skin, so he pulled the foil tighter. Then he rubbed his eyes and yawned. Damn, something must have spooked Donald. Now what? His back crawled as the muscles ticked annoyingly. Stretching out on the ground, he took several deep breaths and forced his muscles to relax as he considered his options. The need to get back in the air pressed but his body screamed for a rest.
There wasn’t sign of a mass recovery, so he didn’t feel like the Facility had captured the whole clan, but the recovery teams couldn’t be far behind if Donald had pushed them on before he and Nick had caught up.
He pulled his jacket tighter against the wet chill from the river and stared up at the dark tree canopy. So where do we go? The map led here. Ian mentioned the wild Valkyries were in the mountains. Continue to follow the river?
He waited until Jessica quit shivering then took her back into his aching arms. A path led to the top of the abandoned trestle and he walked out onto it. Once over the river, he spread his wings and took to the air by dropping off the side of the bridge. A much easier way with the extra weight he carried. He flew below treetop level, following the river’s course.
The hours of night blurred together in a fog of fatigue. He would fly until his body rebelled at the added weight, then he’d drop down and rest until he could push on again. Periodically, he called out with his telepathy hoping Donald or Kieran would answer. He’d lost count of the repetitions. Darkness started to give way to twilight blue, and he began to look for an acceptable place to pass the day. His arms trembling, he spotted a huge maple just past the tree line of the river and banked toward it. With heavy wing beats he dropped to the ground and landed hard, smashing to his knees, just barely managing to keep Jess cradled to his chest. Not much more to give tonight.
It took a couple of tries until he managed to gain his feet. He stumbled through the trees to the base of the maple he’d aimed for. Thank God.
There was a hollow in the immense trunk like he’d hoped. He sank to his knees then bent to let his burden roll from his seized arms. With a groan he forced his arms straight. He looked up and blinked, taking a deep breath, then compelled himself upright. He lurched to the small opening. Darker blackness in the gloom of twilight. Now that he no longer had the drugs muddling his senses, the input from the world around him flooded channels more used to drought than monsoon. All six of his senses concurred that the hollow appeared safe enough. At least no large animals appeared to be using it as a den at the moment.
I hope she doesn’t mind bugs, though.
He waved his arm through the opening. The dry, dead fronds of ferns, grasses, and weeds tangled with the fibrous tendrils of the tree. He brushed them to the side so he could inch in and compressed the brittle pile of leaves that had accumulated in the hollow.
His spirits buoyed by the natural warm bed that waited, he crawled out and managed to pick Jess up and get her safely tucked into the hollow. The leaves bundled up around her space-blanket-wrapped form. Backing out again, he used the tree to pull himself to his feet, then rubbed his eyes. On a yawn, he pulled an energy bar out of one of the cargo pockets on his pants and chewed it mechanically as he walked down to the river to get a drink.
The sun had just crested the peaks farther up the range. His mind dull with fatigue, he thought about Donald and worried that he got everyone safe undercover. He shook the water from his hand and remained crouched by the river to watch the pink streaks fade from the eastern sky, and finally faced the thoughts he’d shied away from all night.
He wondered what had happened at the Facility.
As if thinking about Nickolas conjured him, Chris suddenly became aware of the mental bridge between him and his brother. Attention lit up the twisted strands of spider silk stretched between them in the unknown distance. He tentatively reached out a mental finger to brush the link—and suddenly he was with Nickolas.
He couldn’t see what his brother was seeing, but he was aware of Nick’s physical and mental state like he never had been before. Total concentration, absolute fatigue, and sorrow all resonated down the link. But the concentration was uppermost. Then a searing blast of pain shot down the link and Christoff reached out to steady himself on the boulders of the bank.
No! Nick! He screamed mentally. He couldn’t get a clear idea what was wrong. Only that something serious had happened. He could feel Nick depleting fast. Going on instinct, Chris drew the last of his energy and shoved it into the strands, sending it to his brother. Total exhaustion descended on him.
Please let that be enough. He fell to his hands, his head bowed. He squeezed his eyes shut, a soft growl all that he could manage, knowing Nick fought something…and he couldn’t help him.
Sunlight shot through the bare branches of the trees above him as the sun broke over the peaks. He got shakily to his feet and stumbled to the pile of leaves and to Jessica. He crawled into the fluffy bed and curled up next to her unresponsive body. He was asleep before he could finish sighing.
* * *
A tinge of pink and lavender had started to outline the clouds beyond the peaks of the mountains as color slowly seeped into the world. Donald’s muscles ached from the unaccustomed exercise and extra weight of the net tethered to him. He had been leading all of the Facility Valkyries through the long night, following the river. He pulled his mind away from speculating on what had happened at home after they’d fled Gabriel’s takeover. And the worry over his Flight leader and Alphas. The net twisted again, pulling Donald and his other three wingmates bearing it off balance. They flapped awkwardly and Donald barked, “Jays, just quit it already.”
Muffled curses and threats drifted up from the suspended net and Donald cast a glance, equal parts sorrow and exasperation, to his younger cousin, Kieran. Neither one of them liked hearing their friend in pain like this.
His wings straining, Donald grunted when the whole group dropped ten feet from a particularly hard twist Jays managed to give them, and exasperation won out. Jerking the line back in retaliation, Donald snapped, “Jays, knock it off. This is hard enough as it is. You’re starting to seriously piss me off.”
Obviously the new fledgling couldn’t care less because if anything, the struggling grew worse. After needing to slow their speed and drop more altitude, Donald had had enough. “That’s it. I’m going to trank you. See if I won’t.”
“Don’t you dare!” filtered up from the suspended net.
The net stilled and Donald grinned at Kieran. His cousin’s wings flapped heavily and relief snaked through the younger man’s hazel eyes. Donald glanced down at the other Wing in his Flight—the five of them skimmed closer to the surface of the water course they followed—and thought about picking a replacement for his Second. This night hadn’t been easy for Kieran. His cousin was still in the middle of stage four of the change and his talent was empathy. He must be receiving from everyone. But if Jays cooperated for a few minutes, at least, they could relax and breathe a little easier. That’s better than nothing for now.
The Wing he’d sent ahead to scout for a resting place large enough for the whole clan had yet to return. His worry grew as the light of dawn made the group visible to possible searchers from the Facility.
They’d fled their home in the Facility not long after darkness had fallen. The night had stretched for all of them. He’d thought they would be able to stay hidden at the rendezvous, but Gabriel tracking their trajectory when Donald had taken the last two Flights out of the Facility had changed that plan. Then the contact who was supposed to help them get to the free Valkyries hadn’t answered the damn phone. Dustin. It can’t be a coincidence. That’s not a common name. I haven’t seen him or his twin, Zach, since before I changed. I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me that their family would still have dealings with the Valkyries in some way. Both our families have been devastated by the onset of the change. Gods I miss Zach. I wonder if Kieran heard who our contact is.
His mind wandered back to the present and he tried not to let regret swamp his thoughts over the need to leave the meet up without his Flight leader or Alphas. They’ll be ok. Nick is back to himself now. Between them they’ll find Jessica and stay out of the Facility’s hands.
He hadn’t wanted to leave the rendezvous without them. But as the third highest ranked Valkyrie in the clan he couldn’t risk the safety of the five Flights, fifty people, under his protection. They’d met up at the river park in Monroe just long enough for Donald to get all ten Wings reorganized into five Flights for the exodus. He’d hoped his Alpha and Chris would show up with Jess, he’d even chanced delaying long enough for a couple of Hunters to sneak into town and get what food for Jays and David, the two fledglings with them, that they could. But then he’d hurried everyone into the air.
Jays had been difficult and restless for the entire night, which wasn’t overly surprising from a fledge going into stage two, especially one who had spent all of his time on the other side of the scenario, overseeing the Hub with Ian for years.
A whistle pierced the wind of their passage and Donald saw the five Hunters from the Wing he’d sent ahead to scout fly into view.
They’d located a tree-shrouded grove away from the river that was large enough for them to shelter in for the day, free of choking undergrowth and plenty of soft grass. If everyone stayed out of the center of the clearing, they’d be safe from aerial searches.
His wings labored as he hovered with his three wingmates while they gently lowered Jays into the tattered mist on the ground. The rest of the Valkyries landed around them in the gloom and started to shrug out of their harnesses. Jays feebly clawed at the netting.
“Let me up. Out, I need out. I need to help Ian. Please, why won’t you let me help Ian?” Tangling his hands in the net, Jays twisted around, rumpling the foil blankets and tangling the net. Dev rushed forward to hold him prone as Donald and his Wing touched down. They unclipped their tethers.
Jays fought, making a mess of the net, and Dev grunted in his effort. Their former medic was much stronger than his lithe body gave the impression it would be. “He didn’t pass out during the flight?” The Flight leader for second Flight stated the obvious.
“We weren’t that lucky.” Donald helped hold a corner of the mesh. Jays’s voice rose as he continued to try and rise from his prone position on the ground. “Jays, settle.”
Under the direction of the Seconds, people started to shift the gear under the trees fire brigade style.
“Aidan,” Dev barked. “Get that food over here.” Then to Donald, “I bet he’ll finally go under after he gets a full belly.”
The teen, his blond head bobbing through the mist, came running up. “Sorry. I was getting David settled.”
“We have to go back for Ian, Donald,” Jays repeated.
“Not an option. He ordered us out.”
“You don’t know what you’ve left him to,” Jays said brokenly.
Kieran started to unlash the net while he and Dev held it straight. “You need to eat, Jays. You’ll feel better after you do, trust me.”
“Trust you, Kieran? After you helped leave Ian behind too.”
Aiden got the first of the cold cheeseburgers unwrapped from the paper.
“Kieran,” Donald said, “make sure you eat a couple too.”
Donald suppressed a chuckle at the glare his smaller cousin threw at him. Just like old times. If only Zach were here. Kieran always did hate it when the two of us looked out for him. Obviously reminding his Second of his fledgling state fell into that category.
Still grumbling Jays fell to the food like a starving man, bolting them down faster than Aidan could unwrap the cold fast food. Donald backed up with Dev and let the two Seconds deal with the fledgling.
Dev at his side they walked across the clearing waving at the other three Flight leaders to join them.
He settled against the trunk of a tree, a groan escaping. The other four flopped down, as tired as he.
Wisps of fog drifted around them through the forest.
“How’d your Wings hold up? Any problems?” Donald asked the Flight leaders.
“Everyone’s tired,” Van answered.
“My Second had to keep an eye on someone in his Wing who was struggling. Weak flight muscles it looks like. He had to redistribute her load, but she made it.” Chelsea pillowed her head on her arms.
“This is the longest any of us have spent in the air,” Dev added and ran his hands over his long face. “All things considered, I’m surprised there aren’t more strained wing muscles.”
“That would be why Ian and Jays got on our case all the time about our phys-ex tests, Dev,” Donald added dryly. “We’ll need to make sure that everyone has a thorough stretch before takeoff tonight, though. Dylan, I want you to get sentries set up. I also want someone assigned to Jays and David throughout the day, though I’m not worried about David. He’s far enough into his change that he shouldn’t be a problem. And remind everyone to take their pills.”
“Do we know where we’re going?” Van, the Flight leader for fifth, asked.
Donald rubbed his eyes with a finger and thumb. “No. I still haven’t reached the contact in the phone Ian gave me. It just rings.”
“We can’t fly endlessly,” Chelsea said.
“What are we going to do about food?” Dylan asked. “We have enough energy bars for a day or two, but that won’t cut it for the fledges. They need meat and the fast food burgers are almost gone.”
Kieran appeared out of the strengthening mist and sank down next to him. “Actually they are all gone. We got Jays and David moved out of the clearing. David’s fine, but Jays is sluggish. Unlike when Jessica was exposed to the elements during the start of stage two, Jays doesn’t have physical exertion to help his heightened metabolism keep him warm. I had to feed him all of the leftover burgers. He’s finally passed out. But he’s cold. Too cold.”
Dev spoke up. “If we don’t get him enough to eat, he isn’t going to make it, you know that. And it wouldn’t hurt David to have something to eat either. He’s not in danger yet, but it’s not going to do him any good to go without. Even if you get ahold of this Dustin right now, can they get us help fast enough?”
“I’m open to suggestions,” Donald said.
“Deer? They’re red meat, aren’t they?” Dylan asked.
“Have you ever been deer hunting, buckwheat?” Chelsea snapped.
He glared at her and shook his head. “I don’t hear any bright ideas coming from your way, buckweena.”
“Knock it off. We’re all tired and cold,” Donald ordered. “We don’t need to be wasting time arguing.”
Kieran cleared his throat. Pain lines framed his cousin’s eyes, and his fingers absently worried the Celtic knot medallion he always wore. Sure sign to Donald of how much trouble Kieran was still having with the last stage of the change. “I’ve been thinking about this problem during the flight. Remember that time when you came over for the summer, Donald, and Zach and you had that run-in with Sheriff Tony?”
Donald thought back and smiled a little remembering how much trouble he and his best friend had gotten into. Zach had just smiled and shrugged it off, cocky as usual. Donald’s grandma hadn’t been as forgiving as Zach’s. “Trust a farm kid to think of the obvious. So, boys and girls. Who’s up for a little cattle rustling?”
Excitement kindled in their tired eyes and he grinned, then he waved at Kieran to make the explanations.
“I saw several farms bordering the river. If we take a Wing back now, since it’s just barely dawn, we should be able to down a steer and get it out of the field before anyone is up to notice us taking out some of their profit.”
“How are we supposed to kill a huge cow without a gun?”
Kieran chuckled and it was the first time Donald had heard something so light come from his cousin since he and Chris had taken Kieran off the inhibitor a couple of weeks ago. “The old-fashioned way. We stun it. We don’t have a sledge hammer, but we are stronger than before we changed. I think a rock between the eyes should do it. Then a knife to the throat and it’s all over. If the entire Wing were to then attach ropes, it would only be one to two hundred pounds to lift, per person. We could then bring it back here and have enough meat not only for the fledglings for a couple of days, but we could all have a good meal as well.”
The rising excitement drew the attention of the Hunters nearest them, and Donald saw some of the fatigue erased from their eyes at the prospect of a hunt.
“Ok. Dylan, get the rotations set up. Dev, you’re in charge of the hunting party. Kieran, I’ll kick your ass if you don’t do what he says, got it?” Donald stared hard at his cousin until Kieran flushed and looked down. He could see Kieran still didn’t like having a watchdog, but until he’d stabilized and completed the fourth stage of the change, he couldn’t be allowed the responsibility of command. A smile touched the corners of Dev’s lips at the empath’s reaction, and Donald suppressed his own chuckle when he said to the lieutenant, “I needn’t tell you to keep everyone out of sight. Be careful and get back quickly. I’ll keep trying to call Dustin.”
Donald watched Dev lead the Flight of Hunters and one Seer back into the rising mists of dawn before walking over to check on a sleeping Jays.