Flight- Chapter Two
Nickolas’s breath rasped sharply in his lungs. His speed continued to drop and his wings trembled in fatigue. Almost there. Those foothills should do.
His gaze fixed on the pale outlines of his goal, he dredged up more energy from somewhere. The swelling whir of helicopter blades starting snapped his gaze down to the fields far below him. Swearing, he pushed on. The gray haze of dawn had just started to lighten the sky as Gabriel’s hounds lifted up into the air. They were much too close for his comfort, especially since he didn’t have the advantage of darkness anymore.
*Give up, Nickolas. I can see your wings are barely supporting you. I want you alive, not splattered all over the countryside.*
The soft persuasive voice flowed through Nick’s mind, trying to bend his will. Fatigue was a heavy blanket, but he still managed to push Gabriel out of his mind. It cost him some altitude though.
He risked a glance down.
Finally, the start of true wilderness. He’d passed over the edge of inhabited lands. Every mile gained in flight took him farther away from where Gabriel would have easy ground access to come after him. You’ll have to work for every mile, bastard.
The whup of displaced air popped his ears as the helicopters closed in. Now that he was clearly visible in the growing light, the giant metal machines swooped around him like a couple of demented crows to a hawk.
He swerved and met Gabriel’s intense gaze in one of the doorways and wondered why the other Valkyrie didn’t come out after him. Then the thought was driven out of his mind because he was diving again.
It didn’t take him long to recognize their attempt to herd him. Down and back. Down and back.
The helicopters swooped close, heat and exhaust fumes a cyclone around him. Gabriel and another man holding on at an open door flashed past his eyes.
An arrow of thought pierced Nickolas’s mind, trying to force him down. Sheer stubborn willpower was all that pushed Gabriel out this time. Nick arrowed up, attempting to regain some of his lost altitude, but the helicopters forced him to arc over. He tucked his wings, rolling in the air while trying to dredge up some power to form a shield to keep Gabriel out.
He forced his tired wings back out into a glide and dropped closer to the treetops.
*Nickolas, this is the end. There is a clearing behind us. You will land there.*
*NO!* he shot back.
The pressure pushing at his mind increased and he lost precious air on a gasp of pain. He tried once again to gain some altitude.
The shots took him by surprise. Two bullets ripped through his wing membranes, causing his wings to falter.
*Nickolas, land NOW!*
Hissing in pain, he slowed drastically, his flight compromised from the stress of his tearing wing sail. They were slowly forcing him back to where they wanted him.
A careful wing beat, then two. He tried to minimize the ripping. He ducked under one of the metallic sheep dogs just as the sun crested the distant peaks and shot golden rays of light out across the land. The sun dazzle created one more obstacle for him to contend with.
Damn it. He retracted his wings partially to help reinforce the weak points and dove through the gap between the two helicopters, erupting out the other side. I’ll be damned if I land where they want me to.
He built speed by using a partial stoop and avoided flapping his wings as much as possible. He was still slowly angling down, but at least he was heading farther into the mountains again.
Fire brushed his nerves as the membrane tore a bit more. A gasp whipped away on the wind. They’re right, I have to land. My wings aren’t going to support me much longer. I can’t spiral down; I’ll lose too much ground. I’ll have to coast as long as I can before I need to break and drop down into the trees.
The helicopters surged around him. He narrowed his eyes and concentrated on his wings. The struts vibrated from the force of the wind. Usually, the sail would take the strain and hold the whole structure stable, but with the weakness, he dare not extend them yet.
The smallest correction had Nickolas altering his course, dodging around his pursuers. Not much longer… He clenched his fists trying to hold his wings in position through sheer will.
A buffet of wind slammed him and he faltered and felt the membrane tear; pain ripped through his wing again. Fatigue slowed his reactions and he started to fall. A clumsy flail and he wobbled back into position.
Then a burst of energy poured into him and gave him a last push. He jerked and lost control for a second before he recognized the source as his brother. The thread of energy quickly waned down to a trickle then stopped. He had never been more grateful to Christoff in his life. That small burst of energy gave him just enough to keep going, along with the knowledge that Chris was still alive.
One of the helicopters surged in front of him and forced him to spread his wings to break. He yelled as the skin tore more. Gabriel stood in the doorway and met his gaze.
Nickolas felt time pause as he hung there in the air, wide open. He saw the door gunner take aim, but there was nothing he could do.
He was done.
The bullet took him in the shoulder with the force of a sledgehammer; the impact flung him head over heels. It was the last straw. His body finally gave out and plummeted down toward the thick evergreen trees. A scream ripped from his throat as he forced his wings in close to his body. He hoped beyond hope to save them from more damage as he broke through the canopy. He hit the thick evergreen branches with enough force to slam the air out of him, but they did break his fall as he tumbled from story to story. Breaking through the last level, there was a moment that seemed to last an eternity as he fell with no opposition. He crashed with enough force to send him into unconsciousness on the thickly fern-covered forest floor.
* * *
With dawn gilding the countryside, Gabriel gripped the doorframe of the helicopter and watched Nickolas crash through the tree canopy out of control. Roaring in outrage, he turned on the man next to him and grabbed him by the throat. He held the flailing man out the door; his gun spun lazily down out of sight. “Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t drop you after him! I said the wings. Disable. Disable!”
He threw the man back into the helicopter in disgust and stared down into the lightly waving treetops after his quarry. He reached into his inner web to search for Nickolas’s power signature.
Faint, but unmistakable. The pulse of power continued long after he figured Nickolas should have crashed to earth. Now that he was reassured that the other Alpha had survived the fall, Gabriel called to him. *Nickolas? Hey, boy, I know you made it. You can’t hope to get help way out here in the middle of nowhere.*
He paused, waiting for some flicker of response out of the downed Valkyrie then snorted in annoyance when he realized that Nickolas was unconscious.
“If you want something done right…” He grumbled as he stalked over to the radio, glaring at the man sprawled on the floor rubbing his throat. Gabriel picked up a headset and held one side to an ear. “This is Gabriel. The target is down. I’m going out after him, over.”
“Negative. Negative, Gabriel. Command relays that you are to remain in position. Repeat, you are to remain. Over.”
“Listen up, toad, Nickolas just crashed unconscious into thick timber. There’s nowhere for the helicopter to land, and ground support is a couple hours hike out from his position. The only way to resolve this scenario quickly is for me to do it.”
“The order stands, Gabriel. You are to stay in the helicopter. They are not willing to risk you. That’s what you have subordinates for. You are not expendable. Base out.”
Gabriel turned to glare out the window at the other helicopter. Obviously someone had already informed headquarters about what had occurred. He called up to the pilot and ordered him to circle around and look for anywhere that could possibly serve as a landing place then switched channels to call in ground support. “You heard me! Get the dogs out there, now! The pilot will relay the coordinates. Over.”
He threw the headset into a seat. “God damn it, by the time they finally get there, he’ll be gone. Can’t they figure that out?”
He listened in frustration over the whump of the helicopter as the pilot relayed their coordinates. Gabriel shook his wings out in the confines of the cabin then reached back into his power.
The undefended pulsing of Nickolas’s power signature beckoned. Well, Nick, I know where you’re trying to go. So even if we fail and don’t bring you in, you’ll at least serve the purpose of locating Marcus’s stronghold finally. After which, maybe I’ll have all of you. That could prove even better. He considered that strategy for a while until his ruminations were cut short because status reports started to relay in.
Half the Facility was a shambles. Most of the fires had been contained or were out. They were only just starting to sift through the wreckage. The Valkyrie portion of the complex sustained the most damage, with the Hub completely destroyed, along with all of the medical facilities there. No sign yet of any of the resident Valkyries or of Ian and his staff.
Damn it, Ian. Where are you? You won’t be able to last more than a week on your own, you know that. And I somehow think you don’t want to die like that, or you would have left us for your son before now.
The team he’d sent after the group of Valkyries he’d seen leave the Facility reported that they’d found sign of a gathering of some size in the town of Monroe. They must have been leaving all day; the Flight I saw wasn’t big enough to be all of the control group. They’ll be heading for Marcus, but they’re too far south. If the whole contingent from the Facility is together, they won’t be able to move fast.
He ordered in reinforcements and directed the recovery group in Monroe to start tracking the fleeing Valkyries. “I don’t care how much force you have to use to bring them down, with the two exceptions of Jessica and Nickolas’s brother, Christoff. I want them alive and as unharmed as possible. And if you don’t succeed in that, just ask my copilot what I think of failure.”
He dropped into a seat and closed his eyes. Running his fingers through the knots the wind had put in his hair, he briefly thought about his bath at home then turned back to business. If we can get Christoff, we’ll have control of Nickolas. But if we lose all three, we have no leashes at all on Marcus. The rebels will be completely unfettered.
A little niggling of warning worked its way through his system and Gabriel turned his attention to his web. Diving into it, he searched for Nickolas. When he found no trace, he surfaced. Ice froze all other concerns. He picked the headset up off of his lap. “Attention all searchers, he is on the move.”
* * *
The be all and end all.
His whole world revolved around the sensation.
Then, after a while, individual sensations divided the whole and penetrated his awareness. A searing, burning heat. An uncomfortable amount of general stiffness and soreness. The tickling of warm stickiness as it ran down his skin. Throbbing. Always the throbbing.
A scream echoed off the tree canopy, startling birds into flight, when Nickolas rolled over onto his back. His eyes snapped open from the agony, and his awareness returned full force. Instantly alert, he breathed through the pain and looked up through the ferns to the tree canopy far above.
No sign of Gabriel descending after him.
He gave himself a moment to prepare before he gritted his teeth and tried to lever himself up. He collapsed back into the cold dirt when his left arm wouldn’t work. Breathing hard, he forced himself into a sitting position and a new flood of warm wetness ran down his side.
He winced when he pulled the fabric away from the wound in his shoulder, too much blood to see anything useful. With his good arm, he slowly, laboriously made his way to his feet.
Groaning, he took stock of himself. It didn’t feel like he had any broken bones. A miracle, all things considered.
He swallowed then shifted his wings; better than he had any right to expect. He still had complete movement; it hurt like hell to extend them, but he could do it. Slowly, he bent one, then the other, around in front of himself and examined them closely. The membrane of his right wing sail was torn beyond recognition. Flight was out of the question. He sighed as he slowly furled them onto his back. The rest of his body seemed in working order. Stiff and sore from overuse, but nothing worse.
That left his shoulder. The trauma to it had made it swell and stiffen up to the point that he couldn’t move his arm.
A stream gurgled nearby. He stumbled through the ferns until he reached its bank and knelt to quench his ravenous thirst. With his good arm, he cupped his hand in the flow; the cold water slid down his parched throat. When he was done, he thrust his wet hand through his bangs and shoved his loose hair out of his face. He sat back on his haunches and unbuttoned his shirt before taking a deep breath then worked the wet sticky fabric away to expose the sluggishly bleeding wound in his shoulder.
He fished some gauze out of one of the cargo pockets in his pants and used a square, soaked in the frigid stream, to bathe the wound. He craned his neck to look at the ragged hole. Such a small wound to cause so much pain. Fresh blood welled as he gently wiped along the edges, trying to get the fabric out. After he got it as clean as he could, he used his teeth to tear off strips of tape then fumbled them and a wad of gauze over the hole, smoothing the tape down with his working hand. He struggled to pull what was left of his shirt and jacket back on then swayed where he sat from the shooting pain.
Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath before bending over to get another drink from the stream. After he finished, he climbed to his feet, fished out an energy bar from his pocket, and started out at a slow walk.
In a few minutes his body had warmed and loosened up, and he moved into a faster walk, then a trot, then into a ground-eating lope.
He pushed the pain into the back of his mind and concentrated on weaving his mental shield as tight as he could. I wish I dared try to mind call. I’m not sure how to go about finding the wild Valkyries, but with Gabriel as close as he is, that’s probably a mistake.
As if the other man could hear that thought, Nickolas felt the other Alpha’s mind reach out for his.
*I can tell you’re on the move, Nickolas. Why don’t you stop and rest. I can be there any minute with med supplies to help with your injuries. Then you can come home. Your brother would like to see you, Nickolas. And I just got word on the radio that Ian is concerned about you. He wants you to stop and come in. When he heard you were shot, he got very upset. He wants you back where he can take proper care of your injuries.*
Nickolas had paused in the underbrush when Gabriel had mentioned Chris, the chance that they caught his brother enough to confuse his thoughts, but at the mention of Ian, pain shot through his heart.
It scattered the fog that had started to form in his mind, and he realized the danger of the lie Gabriel spun. Just a means to control him, trick him into giving up. Ian wasn’t waiting for him. He wove his shielding tighter and picked up his pace again. The insidiously compulsive voice slipped through his head anyway, and he did his best to ignore it as he trotted on through the thick undergrowth.
A few hours later, Nick paused to rest when he found another small stream. The rivulet rushed over a small rock wall, creating a soothing noise. He sat on the moss next to the stream and tenderly probed the blood soaked pad on his shoulder.
Heat. Infection. He closed his eyes.
Throughout the day, moving his shoulder even the littlest bit had caused a new leakage and the feel of inflamed tissue around the ragged puncture.
He stretched out to rest, not allowing himself to fall asleep.
Another motor echoed through the trees from above. Gabriel still had search planes flying. He checked the tree canopy anyway, just in case. Sun occasionally broke through the rushing clouds to send thin beams to the floor through the thick branches.
His eyes drifted shut.
The third time he jerked awake, he groaned and rolled to his side and levered himself upright. Stiff, he started the slow process of warming up his muscles again. He tried to ignore the fact that he felt a little like he was floating instead of having his feet planted on the cold earth.
That fact concerned him, but he started walking.
Soon the haze of fatigue and pain created a lens that overlaid his world. The signs of fever started to set hooks into his mind.
* * *
The snuffling of a wet nose on his hand made Christoff crack his eyes open. The beady eyes of a raccoon stared back at him. The creature lifted its lips, exposing pointy teeth as it backed up a step, hissing. Christoff lifted his own lips and growled back, challenging the little beast to try something. It raised its hackles and advanced a step. Snarling, Christoff rose partially out of the pile of leaves and lunged at the tree opening. The raccoon’s eyes widened at the behemoth that had lifted up out of the pile and it screeched, scampering into the forest.
Unreasoning fury shot through his system before he could gain control of it. Before he’d come off of the inhibitor this wouldn’t have happened. The strength of their responses, whether emotional or physical, were so strong compared to an unchanged human and that kernel of truth was what the lies depended on and why they had believed them for so long.
He shook with the strength of the desire to give chase. The animalistic instinct overpowering. A growl rumbled in his chest. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath then lowered himself back to the bed of leaves. Their brittle crunching didn’t stir his companion.
He brushed away some that had fallen across her pale face then worked his hand under the blanket.
At least she’s toasty warm now.
She looked lifeless as she lay in the coma. The rest of the fury drained from his system. He reached out a trembling hand to gently touch her neck. The pulse was slow, but there, matching her breathing.
He crawled out of the small space, tucking the leaves in around her as he left, then he stood and stretched in the gray afternoon light.
There was no sign of the little beast. Not surprising really, but Chris growled anyway with a small return of his previous mood. He stalked down to the river to get a drink and figure out his next step. The silver bullets of fish darted around the rocks, and he stared into the calmly rippling surface. A low buzz intruded on his thoughts. His head snapped up and he scanned the sky.
Rising swiftly, he slid into the shadows of some evergreens near the water’s edge. After a moment, a reconnaissance plane skated low over the river. Damn. Why can’t they just give up?
The plane cruised slowly along. He moved deeper into the shadows. After the plane had passed and disappeared, he still waited, listening.
I knew I needed to wait until dark, but that sure put the point to it.
His stomach growled; another quick glance at the sky and he slipped down to the water once more, took a drink, then made his way back to the tree. He fished another energy bar out of his pocket to ease his hunger. I hope I find someone soon. I spent a lot of energy yesterday carrying Jess.
He leaned back against their tree and wolfed down the bar. His thoughts turned toward his brother and he absently traced the line between them. What he found drove him to his knees. The wrapper crumpled, forgotten in his hand, his eyes blind to the outside.
Nick. He hurriedly sorted through the impressions. Hurt, but still running.
He slowed his breathing and centered himself then pushed as much energy as he could spare down the link to help his brother. He released the line reluctantly. Keep moving, Nick, keep moving.
He shook his head and opened his eyes. A ray of sun tried to peek through the lowering clouds, but it did nothing to cheer him. This experience of feeling Nick with this new psychic bond reminded him of the duty he still hadn’t performed. I wish I didn’t have to do this while she’s unconscious. She’s probably not going to be too happy about me tying us together when she wakes. I trust Nick though. He felt that it was necessary for her to survive the coma. So I guess I’ll survive her wrath. She didn’t get her last meal and with how much exposure to the elements her body has gotten having a psychic link to keep an eye on her and hopefully help will be worth it.
He wormed his way back into the small hollow and pulled the crumbling leaves away from her side so he could sit beside her. He brushed the coppery strands of her tangled hair away from her slack face and just stared for a moment. Then he firmed his resolve and fished her arm out of the foil blanket. He rubbed his thumb across the healed scab that Nick’s power had formed over the slice she’d gotten from the broken glass. Not seeing a better alternative, he pulled his knife and nicked a small segment of the scab, enough for the blood to well and start to slide down her wrist.
He steeled himself and captured the sliding trail with his tongue then sucked a mouthful in from the cut. The quicksilver threaded through him when he swallowed, shocking his system. As he tied her to him, he could feel how much trouble she was in.
The coma required all of her body’s resources, unfortunately the link to Nickolas pulsed wide open. And his brother drank down everything she had to give like a desert in the sun.
Energy she couldn’t afford to lose.
Damn. Sorry Jess. I’d hoped to at least give you half a choice. But I can only monitor you with a one sided link. I need to do more than passively watch.
No wonder her heart and breathing seemed so slow. He pressed his thumb to the bleeding cut while he fished out a bandage. After he took care of her wound, he slipped his arm under her shoulders and propped her up against his shoulder in a sitting position. Her limp body sagged in his grip, but he managed to nick the half-healed scab on his own wrist until he had a trail of blood that flowed. He let her head fall back and held his dripping wrist to her lips.
He stroked her throat and managed to get her to swallow a couple of good mouthfuls. He could feel a difference immediately. A small smile came and went and he got her tucked back into the blanket and leaves. Her breathing quickened, as did her heartbeat.
He doctored his wrist then burrowed in next to her, curling around her still form. He explored the newly formed link and felt the steady pull she exerted on him. Through her, he could see Nick’s steady drain.
I won’t be enough to counter that for long, he thought worriedly before falling asleep again.
He woke as darkness descended and then walked down to the river to get a drink, his stomach churning. I need real food soon. I won’t be able to sustain this level of energy output. He watched the last of the daylight fade from the bank of the river, a cold wind ruffling his hair. The moon had yet to rise.
This’ll be the best time to travel. Few, if any, search parties out right now.
He limbered up his muscles, preparing for flight. I can’t remember the last time I was this sore. He groaned. Once he was warmed up, he uncovered Jessica and maneuvered her out of the hollow in the tree then wrapped her snug in the foil. Clutching her tight to his chest, he forced his resisting muscles to carry them into the air. He soared out, following the ribbon of water once again.
*Donald?* He waited a wing beat. *Kieran?* No answer.
He growled and studied the river bank as he flew, watching for any sign of his people. A few hours later, scuffing on the bank drew his eye. It could just be a watering trail for deer. But, regardless, I need a rest.
He landed in a flurry of wings, breathing hard. The marks were foot prints; he closed his eyes in thanks. Arms aching, he followed the tracks into the woods to a clearing. Underneath some thick evergreen boughs, he gently set Jessica down in the deepest shadows before he scouted around the clearing.
A faint lingering scent of wood smoke clung to the forest. He stretched his cramped arms and read the signs left behind. Dozens of people had walked around the area. Ok, so Donald got everyone undercover. But a fire? He crouched and fingered a bit of charcoal mixed into loose dirt. Then he sniffed again, stood, and made his way to the other side of the clearing. An animal had dug up shallowly buried entrails and started to drag them off. Got it. Good thinking, Don, Jays has to have food. With all the excitement, I’d forgotten he’d started to fledge.
A soft shushing set him on alert. He spun in the darkness, falling into a fighting crouch, scanning beneath the trees. Pieces of shadow detached themselves from different quadrants around the clearing. Christoff watched as four unknown Valkyries moved slowly and silently toward him.
They had entered the clearing in position to surround him. The starlight that filled the open space showed the feral movements of the wild Valkyries. He kept a slow rotation going to keep all of them in sight. His uninhibited senses recognized them all as Hunters. Each remained tense and ready to spring as they stalked him, forcing him to continue to turn, keeping him off balance.
A light-haired Hunter met his gaze. “What are you doing here?”
Chris continued to shift, trying to back out of their circle but having no luck. His dance partners countered each move. He raked his gaze over all of them. “Who wants to know?”
“There’re four of us and only one of you. Answer our question,” a bulky black-haired Hunter who had the invisible feel of being the leader replied.
“It would take more than four to bring me down,” Chris snapped. The feel of a silent conversation passed around him and he flexed his wings.
“You seem too alone.” The leader loosened his wings and continued to weave the circle to remain facing him. “I expected you to have grounded back up.”
“What the fuck. We were sent out here because we were supposed to get help. What did you do with my people?”
The four froze and a silent exchange whipped by.
“James, call Kevin,” one of the others said.
“Who are you?” the leader asked.
He growled at them and continued to rotate. “My name’s Chris.”
They perplexed him by reducing their aggression slightly. Wings beat the dark, then four shapes dropped feet first out of the sky through the small opening in the tree canopy at the center of the clearing.
His growl deepened and he dropped back into a fighting stance.
“Stand down. That’s not Gabriel,” the dominant newcomer said. Immediately all the Hunters surrounding him relaxed. He didn’t follow suit but met the gaze of the new leader. He didn’t feel like a Hunter.
“They thought I was Gabriel?”
The lithe sandy-haired stranger shrugged. “None of them have ever seen him, and you fit the description. Lone, blond, strong. Since we are out searching for all of you, it’s not unreasonable to expect Gabriel following in their wake. However, why are you alone? Where’s everyone else? I’m Kevin, Caster Prime of Aurora. I was there in Bellingham when you and Nick were set up.”
The fighting happened so fast that he didn’t recall the Caster. “I’m not alone, I have Jessica. And I wish to hell I knew where everyone was. I’ve been trying to catch up.”
“Over here.” He led them to where he had laid her down. He crouched and brushed the hair away from her face.
“What happened?” Kevin asked.
“She’s in the coma. But I think she’s having trouble. She doesn’t feel right; I haven’t been off of the inhibitor for very long and don’t know how to interpret these new senses.”
“Come on. We need to get her to Beth. Dusty.”
Kevin moved out into the clearing as the other Hunter stepped forward to pick up Jessica, and Chris reacted to the stranger instinctively. He growled and mantled his wings until the other Valkyrie backed up. He didn’t want anyone else near her. The pack instinct took him by surprise. She was his to protect. His new Alpha. He’d gotten a taste of the stronger nature of the clan bonds when he and Nick met up with Robin’s Flight outside of Bellingham, but that was nothing to what he experienced now. They had been aware of the instinct even in the Hub, but the pale, watered-down version resulting from the inhibitor hadn’t prepared him for the full thing. The instinct stemmed from the need to establish the balance of hierarchy and dominance. Meeting up with someone outside of their own pack…clan, the need to establish status instinctively pushed them. Yet another kernel of truth used to support the lies they had been taught. The Hunter shook his head at Chris’s lack of control.
Chris pulled her into his sore arms then followed the strangers into the center of the clearing where they had already laid out a net. Kevin and three others were buckling on harnesses.
He caught sight of amusement in Kevin’s eyes. Obviously the other Hunter knew he didn’t want to trust them with her.
“You carried her here all by yourself, Chris? How long were you in the air for?” the Flight leader asked.
Growling quietly, he knew Kevin was right, even if the other Hunter wasn’t coming out and saying he shouldn’t carry her by himself anymore.
“Come on, Chris. You’ll be right there. Put her in the net,” he coaxed.
He felt her weight drag at his arms. Getting her to help faster was more important than his desire to not let anyone else near her, and four carrying her would definitely be faster. Besides, if he was being truthful with himself, his body could really use the break.
But who wants the truth, anyway?
He forced himself to put Jessica down into the net and back away. Dusty quickly lashed it shut and they clipped on the tethers. Kevin nodded to him.
He shook out his wings and gave them a quick stretch, then he followed the Aurorans into the air through the break in the trees.
Above the treetops, Chris took his eyes off the swaying bundle that was Jessica and took in the big black clouds racing their way. *How far away are we going?* Chris sent to the silhouettes in front of him.
All the Valkyries shot looks over their shoulders at him, but Kevin was the one to answer. *About three hours northeast. And, Chris, unless you really need to talk to us…please don’t use telepathy. Your sendings are too broad and erratic.* Apology laced the words Kevin sent.
His face warmed and he sighed. It wasn’t like he hadn’t been worried earlier that using his telepathy would be dangerous, but having it confirmed was a little irksome.
As they flew, the weather continued to grow colder. They dropped lower during the flight to stay below the freezing clouds. But his muscles burned. He no longer carried Jessica, but his body still rebelled. No amount of exercise could have prepared him for such lengthy strain.
They’d flown nonstop for a few hours, his eyes never straying far from the swaying bundle the strangers carried with ease. He suppressed a groan when they dropped altitude again, and his muscles protested the need to shift with each down sweep. I’m gonna have to give in and let them know I need a rest. Before I fall out of the sky.
But before he could get their attention, they dropped some more, and he noticed lights wavering through the trees up ahead. The descent continued until they skimmed the treetops. A tingle rippled over his skin. He shied to the side, expecting an attack, but Kevin and the others didn’t pause in their wing beats.
Out of his element, he followed the Valkyries in front of him. The trees ended abruptly, and they burst out over a large mountain valley. Kevin led them lower still, and Chris saw cabins clustered underneath them, then they were over open grassland. Acres of grass.
About two thirds down the length of the valley, he saw another small grouping of buildings. The Flight angled that way. Lights spilled from the windows in two of them. Kevin led them to the flagstone courtyard the buildings shared, and he and his Flight back-winged to a landing, carefully setting Jessica on the stone just as the first big fat flakes of a slushy snow started to fall.
Chris was at the net and unlashing it before the wild Valkyries managed to get their tethers off. Too cold. The pull on his energy had waned during the flight. He opened his jacket before he picked her up, and her cheek created a spot of chill through his shirt. She hadn’t had his body heat to help stabilize her temperature. He looked at Kevin.
The Caster gestured to one of the buildings then preceded him to hold the door open. “I called ahead. Beth will be here promptly.”
He followed Kevin through a foyer and another set of double doors into an infirmary. At Kevin’s direction, he laid Jessica on one of the tables and got a real blanket wrapped around her. Kevin seemed to know his way around the room; he started to get supplies of some sort laid out.
Chris stroked her cold face and hair. The flicker of her power still pulled on him if he looked close enough. And through both his links, he saw Nick struggling.
His stomach tried to chew through his backbone, and he clenched his fist on the bed next to her to stay upright. Maybe I’m just too drained and tired. I don’t have anything to give you, Nicky, I’m sorry.
The doors behind him clicked open. “What have we got, Kevin?”
The voice shivered across Christoff’s nerves and caused an unknown memory to play through his mind. Slowly, almost against his will, he turned his head. A lovely woman, who looked to be in her prime, with only a few streaks of gray marring her dark hair, strode into the room. The woman’s mouth dropped open and her wings fell slack as she stared at him. Her hand slowly rose to her mouth.
“Christoff?” she whispered.
Confused by her reaction, Chris cocked his head, not sure what to do when he saw the tears gather in her eyes.
“You don’t remember me? At all?”
The anguish in her whisper pulled at him, but he shook his head, not knowing what else to say.
The outer door opened again and he looked up, grateful for the interruption. But this time he stared in shock. The man who walked in stuttered in his step, but he covered it and continued into the room.
Chris felt his jaw slowly drop. He was looking into a mirror. The man standing in front of him, if he were twenty-five to thirty years younger, could have been him. Chris swiveled back to the woman. Now he recognized the strong resemblance to Nickolas. He sank down into the chair next to Jessica’s table, shaking his head.
The man who looked too much like him put his arm around the woman’s shoulders. “Christoff…”
Chris cut him off. “Who are you?”
“Christoff, it is us.”
Shaking his head, he stammered out, “I don’t believe…Ian said…”
“We know what your grandfather told you. There wasn’t any choice.”
Emotions ricocheted through him. He jerked out of the chair and his wings flared. He paced to the opposite wall and back. No choice?
“Bullshit! There’s always a choice!” he snapped. The ramifications cascaded through his head. They left us. Left us with the Facility. To be experimented on…. What if Gabriel had gotten…. He continued his prowl, adrenaline briefly countering his need for food and sleep. Who else knew and kept this from us? Then he thought of Nick. Oh God, this is going to kill him.
He scrubbed his face with his hands, trying to master the anger, the disbelief, then returned to Jessica. The link between them had flared at his reaction; he took a deep breath and picked up her hand, needing the contact, refusing to look at the two who had abandoned them to the Facility. “Look, I’m exhausted, and I haven’t eaten in two days. I can’t deal with this right now.”
The room stayed silent for a moment before the two older Valkyries slowly approached the foot of the table. His mother cleared her throat. “You called us in, Kev? What’s needed? Who’s this?”
Kevin answered softly, “This is Jessica.”
Her head snapped a look at the Caster, then zeroed back in on Jessica. All business now, she came around the side of the bed and shoved Chris out of the way as she started checking vitals and reactions. “What’s happened to her? Is she in the coma? Or something else?”
A little nonplussed at how easily she’d been able to push him aside, he answered her, “Nick said it was the coma. But I don’t really know, I guess.”
“Ian said she should be getting close. Did she get her last meal?”
“Ian? How would you…never mind. I’ll ask him that myself. I don’t know, but I doubt she did.”
Kevin wheeled a cart up. Marcus stood on the other side of the bed, holding his hand over Jessica’s body, his eyes unfocused.
“How long has she been unconscious?” the man who claimed to be his father asked.
“Since the night before last, about six in the evening, I think.”
“Right after they released that wave of energy, I’d say?” The deep rumble of his father’s voice rolled over him. Unwantedly familiar.
Chris looked up at him. “How did you know about that?”
Marcus looked up, a smile hovering at the edges of his mouth. “I expect every Valkyrie west of the Cascades felt it that night.”
He shivered and turned away as Marcus went back to whatever he was doing to Jessica. After a moment, he finally stammered out, “Yes…when…Nick landed with her, she was already out for the count.”
“Where is your brother? And the rest of the control group?” Marcus asked as he shifted position down her body, his eyes still unfocused.
His mother, too, stared off into space, holding her hands over Jessica’s head. Kevin cast him a sympathetic glance, which he ignored. “Control group?” No one answered him so he continued, “I don’t know where Nick is. I was trying to catch up to Donald and the rest. Nick sent me ahead with Jess and went back to the Facility to make sure everyone got out.”
“And you let him?”
He slowly raised his gaze to his father’s, and after a moment he said, “You have no idea what you left behind.”
Marcus blinked then turned back to his task with Jessica.
“I couldn’t have stopped him. Not alone,” he added into the silence that fell. After a moment, he rustled his wings but forced his body to remain where it stood and watched the two older Valkyries stare blankly. It reminded him of one of Nickolas’s episodes.
Beth released a frustrated hiss and came back to herself. “Anything? What is going on? I don’t get it.”
Marcus shook his head and lowered his arms. “I don’t know. Her energy isn’t focused on finishing the coma.”
He turned inward and did a split second trace; nothing different that he could see. Maybe they couldn’t see it? “It’s Nick.”
Both swiveled and pinned him with a stare. Then his father said, “What?”
He stepped back up to Jessica’s side and took her hand. Beth slid down for him. “She’s supporting Nick. All her energy is draining down the link between them. Can’t you see it?”
“No,” Beth said and immediately fell back into trance, scanning Jessica.
“What do you mean, supporting Nickolas?” his father asked.
He shrugged. “I don’t know what’s happened to him. All I can tell from my link with him, and through the link I have with Jess, is that he’s hurt and exhausted. I get the feeling that he’s on the run.”
“How badly is he hurt?”
“No idea. But knowing Nick’s abilities and stamina, I’d have to guess, very.”
“Damn, we need to get more people out there.” Marcus ran his hand through his hair. “If he’s running, then he’s alone. We have two groups out there to find.”
The outside doors of the building slammed. Chris twisted at the sound and the wave of strength that preceded and turned to defend his vulnerable Alpha. The inner doors crashed open and the Hunter he’d met leading the Flight in Bellingham rushed through. That Hunter may have helped them slip out of the trap Gabriel had set for Nick, but that didn’t mean he trusted the stranger or his aggression.
His father leapt in front of him, blocking his defense. “Chris, stand down! There’s no threat to you here.”
Chris fought his instinct to respond to an obviously strong, aggressive newcomer and made himself step back. His gaze locked with his father’s as the older male forced compliance with the strength of his will.
He fell back another step then almost broke free of Marcus’s dominance when the Hunter strode to the other side of the table. Chris snarled and turned, and the other’s eyes glowed in response to the challenge.
His mother stepped between them, Kevin right behind her.
“Robin,” Marcus commanded.
“Marcus, she’s my sister.”
“Sister?” Chris snarled but was ignored.
“I know, Robin. But unless you want a fight to break out over the top of her, back off. He isn’t in control of his instincts.”
Robin growled but complied, slowly. His eyes locked on Jessica. “What’s wrong with her? Beth, what’s wrong with her?”
Chris’s mother placed her hand in the middle of Robin’s chest before she said, “She’s in the coma.”
Chris winced at the familiar gesture, a snake of jealousy inching through him.
“Robin, there’s nothing you can do for her right now. We need to get her stabilized, and I need you out with the search teams.” Marcus addressed Robin, but his focus had never left Chris.
Chris met Robin’s eyes. Looks like he wants to go for my throat about as much as I want his. Must be that sister thing.
“I’m sorry, Robin,” Marcus continued, “but I need you to get six more groups together. It looks like Nickolas is out there alone and likely injured. Kevin’s team found sign of the rest of the Facility’s Valkyries when they brought Chris and Jessica in. We don’t want the trail to get colder, and with the weather starting to turn, there’s going to be casualties if we don’t get them in soon.”
“Yes, sir,” Robin said softly. Promise shown in the Hunter’s eyes and Chris acknowledged it with a smile. The Hunter turned on his heel. “Kevin?” he called, walking out of the infirmary without looking back.
“I’ll get him settled and on the way, Marcus,” the Caster said and followed.
Once the doors shut, Chris slowly relaxed. Marcus gave a disapproving look as he moved back to check Jessica again.
I really don’t care what you think, you know. Why should I trust any of you? Chris thought with some resentment. He silently watched the two Valkyries work on Jessica, his thoughts and feelings in turmoil.