I have to go on record and say my sense of direction can be compared to that of a pickle, and being underground made it worse. Or I assumed we were underground since there were no windows to be found. I reckoned we could be in the middle of a building, but the stone exuded a damp chill rarely found in a Florida summer. The walls and floor also had an aura of subtle power, which meant a spell had been laid into the very foundation of the building. Florida’s high water table meant you wouldn’t find houses with basements, or anything underground, unless someone went through quite a lot of trouble or spelled the structure. The spells were the only thing keeping this place from turning into a watery tomb for us.
I ran my hands along a wall, and as my clawed fingers trailed across the time-worn edges with soft scratches of sound, they met the slightest resistance before pushing through. Almost like stones were surrounded by a thin layer of water with a slightly more resistant surface tension. When I gave that extra push to break through, my fingers tingled from the contact with whatever magic was there. It was a low-level buzz that bordered on the edge of being uncomfortable, but if I had to I could stand it for a while. The lack of oomph from the spell meant they had to be renewed once a year to keep them fresh. No magic is perfect and self-sustaining, and while some spells could last a very long time if they were powerful enough, they did need to be freshened up, like putting a new coat of paint on a house.
Warren cleared his throat and I glanced up. He was a little farther ahead of me than he’d been a minute ago, and I hadn’t realized it but I’d slowed down to check out the spell. Given my gung-ho, go-and-get-‘em attitude from earlier, the spells were also providing a sort of befuddling to those who touched the stones. Sneaky bastards. He nodded once, to show he understood what had happened, and I picked up the pace to catch back up with him.
Warren was doing better than me as far as navigation was concerned, but you know that old saying about men and directions; he could be just as lost as me, or worse, and I’d probably never know. At this point I wanted to run into one of the bad guys just so we could beat our bearings out of them.
The long hallways were not straight, and they all curved just enough to provide the barest hint of cover. The walls didn’t overly echo our movements though we did try to keep any noise at a minimum. Unless someone else was trying to be as cautious as we were, I doubted they’d get the drop on us.
Shouts and sounds of alarm came from ahead of us, and the pounding of boots on the floor reverberated up through the soles of my feet. Anticipation tingled down my spine, and adrenaline washed through me like liquor hitting an empty stomach. I curled my claws and grinned. Ask and ye shall receive.
The wall curved to the left, and Warren motioned for us to crouch down low right next to the wall. Most people aim center mass, and since Terry and Vern had weapons it was safe to assume others would, as well.
The first person that burst around the corner was male, young, and carrying a big gun. Shock widened his eyes when he saw us. He was another half-kin, as was the girl who crashed into his back when he stopped short. Warren rushed the guy and slammed him into the opposite wall, while I sprang forward and tackled the girl right at her midsection. The air whooshed out of her when we connected, and what little she had left in her lungs was slammed out when we met the floor, but the hallway wasn’t overly large and her head also hit the opposite wall.
While I wasn’t anywhere in the same class as the best fighter in the world, Dragon form versus human would always win out. Though I guess the floor and I could take equal credit in taking the female down. She was dazed, the wind was knocked out of her, and she was too young and too panicked to shift. Still, I kept her pinned in much the same way Terry had pinned me earlier, and I made sure to take care that I didn’t shred her wrists with my claws—though I did exert close to bone-crushing pressure.
I glanced over my right shoulder to see Warren holding the kid up in a choke-hold, one-handed, and shaking him like a rag doll.
I turned my attention back to the girl, who had just gotten her first, almost complete lung-full of air and I leaned down next to her face.
“Scream and die,” I hissed into her ear, and the fly-aways from her dark brown hair tickled my lips. Then I leaned back to see her face. They were my only words, but combined with my Dragon form, mouth full of throat-tearing teeth, and pitch black eyes, the threat worked. She swallowed past whatever she had intended to say, or scream, and nodded once with a short, jerky motion.
“Where are the girls?” Warren asked the male, but I kept my eyes on my own captive. Distractions were the quickest way to gain the upper-hand. Just look at Terry and Vern.
“Go to hell, you full-blooded jackass,” the male choked out, and under other circumstances I might commend him, but right now I wanted to find the girls and get out of here.
If they were still alive, a small voice said. I clenched my jaw and narrowed my eyes at his words, and my thoughts, but all the girl knew was I was getting angry and she was the only one in my sights.
“For fuck’s sake, Kendall, just tell them,” she squeaked out, and her pulse pounded at her neck.
“No—screw them. This is the first time we have the upper-hand and I won’t back down,” Kendall said, pride and triumph in his voice like he was waving the victory flag on a battlefield.
“So you’ll murder three girls, one of them a six year old, simply because you don’t like a group of people?” I asked, the question ground out from me like rocks trapped in my throat, and the word ‘murder,’ hit like an off-key piano note.
The girl furiously shook her head.
“No,” she gasped out, after my hands clenched even tighter against her wrists and arms, “not murder. No one is going to die—we just need a little blood to open the portal!” she finished.
“Yeah, we wouldn’t hurt no kid,” Kendell said, offended that we’d think so low of him.
“Oh, yeah? How dense are the two of you?” I asked, furious. “A little blood to open one of the most powerful portals seen on Earth since it was opened the last time? Did you completely skip out on all lessons dealing in magic and energy?” My words were scornful, and doubt crept into the girl’s eyes.
“Don’t listen to that crazy bitch, Crystal—she’s one of them!” Kendall almost screeched, but the sound ended with a gurgle. Warren much have tightened his grip.
I kept my eyes locked with the girl’s.
“But she’s not, Kendall. She’s a half-kin, too,” Crystal said, surprise in her voice.
“She works for the full-bloods,” the boy spat, his voice a little more hoarse than a minute ago.
“I take care of other half-kins for one of my clans,” I said, “and two of the girls taken were half-kins, as well, and the little girl might be a full-blood, but she’s a child,” I growled.
Crystal’s resolve didn’t appear to have been rock-solid in the first place, which was why she’d likely been paired with a zealot like Kendall. His passion would eventually wear down her common-sense, was probably the working theory.
What I didn’t get, was why the half-kins would want to see Dragons returned to the world.
She wavered, and in the moment I saw a chance that we might be in time—a glimmer of hope I could save them.
“They killed Richey!” Kendall howled, in a final, desperate attempt to keep her firmly on his side of the matter. Richey must have been Terry’s brother, and his death kept coming back to bite me on the ass, because unfortunately Kendall’s last-ditch play worked.
Shock registered in her expression, followed quickly by anger. She screamed in my face, a cry of anguish and fury of a person who’d had their heart ripped from their chest. With her mind more focused and balanced, her bones shifted beneath her skin for the change.
She bucked against me, but I was fully shifted and stronger. I wasn’t taking any chances, so I moved forward quick as a flash. One minute her throat was intact, and the next it was a bloody, ragged mess. I spat cartilage and tracheal flesh from my mouth, and it hit the stone with a wet splat. Blood coated the inside of my mouth, around my face, and down my throat. It was hot, metallic, and while the more human side of me deep in my soul squirmed, the Dragon side of me wanted to roar in triumph. Her blood pulsed and sprayed from the wound at her throat, and she was dead almost before she realized what had happened, life leaving her green eyes as quick as the blood from her body.
Death to our enemies.
I’d pay for my actions later, I knew, and some dark night I’d have nightmares about this. But for right now the reptilian part of my brain saw nothing more than a necessary precaution.
A thump sounded behind me and I let go of the girl and whirled around. Warren dropped the boy to the floor, his head at an odd angle, and nodded to me.
“I can smell the girls on his clothing. Not like he was close to them,” he hastened to add at the narrowing of my eyes, “but definitely in the same room, and recently.”
Before I stood, I wiped my face and hands on the bottom of the girl’s t-shirt. It was tie-dye, and the fact I was just noticing let me know how far down the Dragon rabbit-hole my mind was spiraling. I needed to shift back, and soon.
Not before we find the girls. All of them.
The fact was I was far more deadly, and dead useful, in this form.
“We’ll follow their trail back,” I said, and stood, slightly more clean than before. I moved my tongue around in my mouth, gathering as much blood as a could, and spat it out onto the floor.
“Sounds like a plan,” Warren said, and moved ahead of me back down the hall from where Crystal and Kendall had come, stepping over her body along the way.
We left them there, though it probably didn’t matter—the chances that Terry and Vern had been found were high, and trying to conceal them wouldn’t do too much good. They knew we were down here, and loose.
Before I followed Warren I checked Crystal’s pockets and found some keys. When I bent over her I took a deep breath and faintly smelled the girls. Drakken weren’t trackers on the same level as certain Weres, or other supes with keen senses of smell, but it was better than human. It was a sense we could develop but I’d never done so. Since Warren was a DSR agent it was a pretty good bet he had.
We moved low and quick, just in case we ran into anyone else. Periodically we heard noises coming from various hallways but Warren didn’t hesitate or stop. He kept moving with the single-minded purpose of those tracking. Once we turned down the third or so intersection he slowed, and at each door he took a long, slow, inhalation of air. At the second door on our right he stopped and motioned for me to pull out the keys. There were no numbers on the doors or the keys, and as the ring jangled I wondered how long it took them to memorize which key was for what.
On the fifth key the lock tumbled, and Warren swung the door open. No one was in the room that we could see, and he slowly walked in. From the right side, opposite of where the door swung in, a figure pounced on him. Before he could do something regrettable, and final, I pulled Mina from his back and pushed her away from me. She was reacting, and not seeing, and that meant she might attack me, too.
She was still in her human form, crouched, after she’d turned back to us. Her eyes narrowed when she saw us, and her gaze flickered between the two of us.
“E-Erryn?” she asked, her voice wobbling just a touch.
“Yes, Mina—it’s me,” I said. Before the words finished she’d thrown herself at me, and I gently caught her in my arms, not wanting to accidentally injure her. She sobbed her relief in my embrace, and it broke my heart into a million pieces and melted them all at once.
“I thought you were dead! You looked so pale and still when they dragged you from the house,” she said between sobs. I patted her back and looked around the room. It had a small cot with a thin blanket and lumpy pillow, and a pail in the corner. I walked her over to the cot and sat her down, but she pulled me along with her. The cot might not hold us both, but at that moment I didn’t care.
One down, two to go.
“I’m fine, Mina,” I soothed, and gently rocked her with me. “Where are Talitha and Meriel?” I asked. She shook her head.
“I don’t know where they took Tally or Meriel. They separated us almost immediately after getting here,” she said, and reluctantly sat up and away from me, the teenager in her taking over and insisting that comfort was for little kids.
Warren stepped out into the hallway, and came back in a moment later.
“I can smell Talitha, but Meriel’s scent is weaker, like she was here for a short time then gone,” Warren said.
I checked Mina over, to make sure she wasn’t injured.
“Can you shift?” I asked, but she shook her head again and pointed to a tiny circle of metal around her ankle. It was a small, unchained version of the shackles placed on us. It was strange, though, and didn’t have any keyhole.
“They slapped these on us when we got here—they block the shift,” she scowled down at the offending anklet.
“Okay, here’s what we’re going to do,” Warren said, and walked over to us. He held out his hands and helped the two of us up from the cot. “We’re going to find Talitha, and continue looking for Meriel. If we find the exit before we find Meriel you three will get out while I continue looking for her,” Warren said.
I didn’t agree with his plan of action but it was the best we had at the moment. I’d go along for now, but I would help get Meriel back.
“Lead on,” I said, and we followed him back into the hallway.