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They practically stumbled over their quarry and almost didn’t realize that the hunted nearly became the hunter in the matter of a split second. The only hint they got of its presence was a spray of sparks from a bundle of dying wires and the sound of Tim’s sword rasping free from its scabbard—a more hasty draw than usual, based on the noise.
“Left,” he barked, the tip of his blade scraping against the wall, throwing sparks of its own and offering a short-lived view of their quarry.
The UNSETIC teams were in a tunnel off the main trunk that housed the street, one hidden from the rest of the world by a security door emblazoned with the words “Authorized Personnel Only.” No one knew they were there. If the creature killed them all, it might be weeks--or longer--before anyone found them.
At the sound of Tim’s order, the team flattened against the wall, weapons ready, trained in the last known location of the creature. Gunfire echoed off the walls as the first member of the team spotted a blur of gray flesh in the shadows disappearing down a rough-hewn side passage. The creature shrieked a warning at them and vanished into the darkness beyond the reach of their flashlights.
“After it, move! Keep your fields of fire clear and watch your partner’s back!” Brigid brought up the rear, shoving Ridley ahead of her as Tim led the chase down the side corridor. Now if my damn partner would make that job easier on me, that would be great.
More gunfire echoed from the tunnel up ahead and she cursed under her breath. The utility tunnels like this one were a maze—some of them dating back to the turn of the twentieth century and earlier still. If their target knew the tunnels better than her teams did, there was the potential for serious casualties, especially if the damned thing somehow managed to double back and come up behind them.
“Bear right,” Tim answered, his voice taut. “And keep your eyes open. Damn thing is fast.”
A few more twists and turns and another near miss later found them at a dead end of a room that smelled of the river’s dampness. Long-forgotten construction supplies littered the small storage room, lit by dying, buzzing emergency lights—the first real lights they’d seen down here other than the flashlights they carried.
A flash of gray flesh and black, reflective eyes darted toward the rear of the room, drawing a hail of gunfire. Brigid swore, shoving the steel door behind her shut and dropping the bar into place before pressing her back against it.
“It’s cornered! Fire at will.”
Gunfire exploded in the space a second before a fresh shower of sparks erupted from the far wall, wreathing the creature in bright light. It shoved a torn cable into its maw a second before the room plunged into darkness.
The shooting stopped. In the sudden silence, over the rasp of her own breath, Brigid heard the steady drip of water and the sound of the creature slurping, as if the cable was a straw and the electricity that ran through it was a high-powered milkshake.
“Bloody hell,” she breathed. She toggled the radio. “Fall back,” she said. “Fall back to the doors.”
“Negative,” Tim countered. “Hold position. I’ve got this.”
Brigid swore under her breath. “And if you don’t?”
“Then say nice things at my funeral. Hold your fire.”
“Roger that. You heard the man. Hold your fire.”
Her heartbeat thundered in her ears. The creature kept slurping on the power line. A boot scraped against the floor. Brigid counted her heartbeats, willing calm on herself like she’d been trained to do, and her pulse slowed.
A crate tipped and crashed to the floor.
Light flared ahead of them and for the barest instant, Brigid caught sight of Tim, backlit by the blue-white light suffusing his blade, just as he brought it down onto the creature.
Sparks flew. The blue-white light died and Tim’s scream mingled with that of the creature.
“Merlin!” she, Ridley, and John shouted all at once. Brigid moved, plunging toward the last spot she’d seen them, knowing she had to do something but at a loss as to what that would be once she reached them.
“Fall back,” she shouted at the go teams. “Go teams, fall back and set up a perimeter at the last junction point.”
The creature was still screaming as Brigid plunged across the room, knocking over equipment and crates in the intermittent darkness. Ridley’s flashlight was on, its bobbing glow to her left. Tim’s screaming had stopped and she hoped it didn’t mean the worst of what she’d feared.
We’ve been through too damn much for this to kill him now. Oh god. Kate’ll kill me.
Then she heard his voice, rasping and shaky at first, then growing stronger, chanting something in one of the languages he spoke and she didn’t, some kind of mantra or focus. Ridley’s flashlight illuminated his face for a moment and Tim faltered, breaking off with a curse. The creature jerked free of the blade in its back, tumbling backward a few steps. The power cable it had been chewing on writhed on the floor like a dying snake, giving off feeble sparks that died almost as soon as they hit the concrete.
John was behind the creature, hands raised as if to grasp it by the head.
Fuck me sideways. She opened her mouth to scream his name.
Too late. His hands clamped down on either side of the creature’s head, his palms flat against its temples. John yelped, then steadied, lips curling into a snarl.
“Do it now!” he roared at Tim. The magus needed no further prompting to drive his blade back into the thing’s chest.
Brigid could have sworn it laughed in the midst of its screams.
What the hell is this thing?
Electricity crackled. Something caught her around her midsection and sent her sprawling half a second before lightning crackled through the space where she’d just been. She looked at Ridley in the dim light of his fallen flashlight.
“Thanks,” she panted, catching her wind again.
He nodded. “I’m going to blow that thing’s brains out.”
“Don’t hit Merlin or Burn.”
Ridley gave her a death’s-head grin. “Of course not, Commander.”
He shimmered out of visibility in the darkness as she grabbed for his flashlight with her free hand, rolling onto her side and then to one knee, her sidearm rock-steady in her other hand.
Tim ripped his blade out of the creature’s chest. The thing reached for the blade, long fingers scrabbling for the razored edges as the sword gleamed a dim white-blue with crackling, humming magic.
The thing’s feeding on electricity. What happens if it sucks the magic out of that sword—and Tim?
She aborted her shout as his blade plunged back into the creature’s chest again. Electricity crackled along the blade, arcing from the metal into Tim, who grit his teeth, lips still moving, voice still steady as he repeated his mantra, the words to whatever spell he was working, over and over again. Brigid’s temples pounded, throbbed as they did when her partner worked his strongest magic.
She stumbled backwards.
“Get out of here, Commander!” John yelled. “Fast, before it breaks loose.”
Whether he meant the creature or all hell, she couldn’t be certain.
“I see this through!” she fired back, willing the pain away. “Finish it!”
Light so bright it nearly blinded her suddenly sparked along the length of Tim’s sword. The creature’s head wrenched backwards. It cackled, head snapping forward. It pressed the blade deeper, the light starting to falter. Tim’s eyes widened, backlit by his sword’s glow. His jaw tightened and the light increased, though from her vantage she could tell her longtime partner was shaking, his magic taking a heavy toll.
A single gunshot exploded and then, suddenly, everything was quiet.
The creature stood where it was for a moment, in defiance of the bullet that had killed it. Everything seemed caught in silence and the burning smell of ozone.
And then reality set in. The creature collapsed, hitting the ground with a hard thud.
Ridley’s voice came from somewhere to Brigid’s left. “I…didn’t do that.”
Wes lowered his gun when the monster went down. He felt a thrill of satisfaction and he took a deep breath to squash the impulse to celebrate his kill.
The red-haired woman who seemed to be in charge posed a question he wouldn’t answer. “Who took the shot?”
Another woman posed a question he wouldn’t answer, for different but similar reasons. “What did you do?” Angel’s rhetorical accusation rang in his ear. She was almost shouting, to the point where her voice had nearly become screeching static. Wes held a curse behind his teeth and started to back away, well into the shadows where none of the others could see him. He just prayed they couldn’t hear Angel shouting over the earpiece in the sudden still quiet of the tunnels.
Tom said, “Wes, it’s time to go. Angel and I will guide you out of there, but you should move quickly.”
The red-haired woman, the one they’d called Commander, slowly lowered her flashlight. “If that wasn’t you...”
“What did you do?” Angel demanded.
“Angel, shut up,” Tom said. “He can’t answer you or they’ll hear him.”
“What the absolute hell did you do!”
Tom said, “Wes, move away from them down the tunnel and take the first left.”
“Did you guys hear that?” The red-haired woman looked around slowly, brow furrowed, visible in the wash of her flashlight.
“Hear what?” The man that had been holding the creature by the head was propping up the man with the sword, who’d slumped against the wall, his complexion washed-out in the shadows.
“I could have sworn I heard something.” The woman frowned, her flashlight scything back and forth, illuminating the room’s gloom.
Tom must have clapped a hand over Angel’s mouth. All Wes could hear from his girlfriend was a muffled curse before the sound was eclipsed by Tom’s whisper. “Back the way you came and to the left.”
Casting one more glance toward the four he’d not-quite-inadvertently rescued, Wes ducked left, heading through a maze of stacked crates and other debris.
Behind him, the woman said, “Ridley, door, move.”
“Don’t you think you’re being a little paranoid, Commander?” Ridley asked, even as he moved to obey the order he’d been given, passing within a few feet of Wes on his way to the barred exit.
“Someone not one of us just shot that thing. Forgive me if I’m a little concerned about that.”
“They’re on the move,” Tom’s voice murmured in Wes’s ear. “I think they noticed you but they don’t see you yet. Keep quiet, but keep going until I tell you to stop.”
Wes hesitated a moment, shifting back along a row of crates and listening, watching the four as they reacted to his presence--or the suspicion of his presence, as the case actually was. He watched as the woman moved toward the door, taking note that both she and the one they’d called Ridley moved near-silently. No, not nearly silent, he mentally amended as he watched Ridley move. That one doesn’t make a sound at all. At least he could hear a faint scrape of a boot heel from the woman, a slight drag as if she favored one leg.
He wanted to watch a moment longer, to study the silent one because it was always nice to see someone who could match him for sneaking but behind the pair, the man with the sword used his shoulder to lever himself upright again. A faint glow starting to spread down the blade.
“They’re coming after you,” Angel murmured, her voice urgent. “Get moving.”
Casting one last glance toward the four, Wes turned and moved down the row of crates, spotting a door at the end of the row. He paused a moment before he risked opening it, grimacing at the quiet creak it gave off as he cracked the door just enough to slip through and into the next room.
“The door over there just opened,” one of the men said. “You see it, B?”
Wes took stock of the room quickly. Shelves. Giant metal boxes--transformers, maybe, some kind of cabinets. Electrical cables were everywhere.
Lucky that thing didn’t end up in here.
“Yeah, I saw it,” the woman’s voice said. “Ridley, watch the egress. John, can you sense anything?”
Wes hauled himself up onto one of the rows of cabinets, tucking himself as far back into the shadows as he could manage.
“Careful,” Tom said. “They went more alert all of a sudden.” Yes, he wanted to say. They heard me. Who are these people?
He heard a snort from the other room. “You mean other than my brain trying to leak out my ears? No. Remind me to tell you what I saw inside that thing’s head once I stop wanting to take steel wool to my brain.”
Wes’s whisper to his friends was hardly loud than a breath. “I know what I’m doing. Shut up for a minute.”
Angel’s voice answered him, earnest and worried. “Be careful.”
The door opened, the flashlight’s beam playing across cabinets and bundles of electrical wire. The woman muttered a curse as she eased fully into the room, hazel eyes glinting green in the dim, flashlight held high, just above her shoulder near the side of her face.
Carries it like a cop. Wes watched the flashlight’s beam, motionless, repeating a mantra over and over again. Not here, not here, nothing to see here, don’t bother looking. He shifted silently to the next cabinet as the beam of light grew too close for comfort. Maybe I can get to the door behind her.
“I know you’re here,” she said after what felt like an eternity. “So put your hands where I can see them and no one is going to get hurt.”
She was carrying a pistol, a semi-automatic, probably military or police issue, nothing dainty. The grip she had on it left no doubt that she knew exactly how to use it, too.
Wes held his breath.
The woman closed the door behind her with a solid thunk, leaving them in the room alone, eliciting a surprised curse from the other side of the door. Wes cursed too, silently, and pressed back against the wall.
“Stay out there and make sure no one comes out,” she ordered. She took a step away from the door, took a deep breath, then exhaled it slowly.
“That backfired,” Angel whispered in Wes’s ear. “Is she a Hunter? I only ask because--”
“--we can sense the others, but not her,” Tom finished, as if he and Angel had been sharing the same thought.
Wes paused, brows knitting, peering at the woman, assessing.
“Seriously, just come out,” the woman said quietly, her gaze moving, tracking along the flashlight’s beam. “I should really thank you, y’know. You saved at least one life out there.”
“Don’t,” Tom warned. “If you keep out of her sight long enough, maybe she’ll think you just pulled a trick on them.”
“Yeah,” Angel said. “You opened the door but kept running. Just keep out of her sight.”
Wes kept quiet, still watching, waiting. She didn’t feel like a Hunter. Or move like one. Hunters didn’t move like cops, for one thing, in large part because Hunters didn’t become cops. Or any kind of law enforcement.
If the woman heard his friends’ whispers in his ear, she didn’t give any sign of it. “Look, you’re not going to get out of here without someone on my team seeing you,” she said. “We’re the good guys. I just want to make sure you are, too. Just come out. I don’t bite.”
“Want us to come in there?” Tom asked. “Distract them?”
Wes took a silent breath, then murmured, “No. Lay low.”
His earpiece clattered to the floor next to the cabinet. The flashlight’s beam scythed in that direction half a second before Wes pushed himself off the top of the cabinet, dropping to land like a cat on the slick concrete floor, crushing the earpiece beneath his heel.
“Hand where I can see them,” the woman ordered, her flashlight and weapon trained on him.
“I want out,” Wes said calmly, not betraying a hint of the annoyance he felt. And while he did obey her - he did show his hands - he held his gun aimed at the space a little to her left, but near enough to make a point. “That’s all I want. Just that.”
Her gaze met his and he got the impression that maybe, just maybe, talking his way out wasn’t going to be as easy as he’d hoped.