Covering his bike with a blind woven of magic and dead leaves, Jax dropped his bag on the ground and squatted beside it to find what would look to anyone else like a protein bar. He unfolded the magnetic end of the shiny foil and swooped the exposed crystal shaving along the length of a log. The thin wafer of crystal hummed in his hands as the spell released into the Preserve.
Jax held his breath. The spell would sweep anyone near the border back across, using a combination of fear and persuasion to guide intruders to safety. Unfortunately, the barrier spells damped down on the crystal’s magic so it only had a few hundred yards’ reach–and it varied depending on weather inside and outside the Preserve. Today, the magic failed to reach the intruder.
“Damn,” Jax muttered under his breath. Melina said the intruder wasn’t moving when they spoke last night. She’d even okayed his wait until morning so he could repair his bike.
The sun hovered barely over the horizon. Surely the intruder hadn’t been stumbling about in the dark. They likely still slept. Unless…oh shit.
Jax sealed the crystal back in its wrappings and shoved it to the bottom of the bag which he swung up on his shoulder. He stepped over the log and into a pristine woods of the pre-settler days.
The woods were alive with birdsong and the buzzing of insects. A squirrel leapt out of his path and scurried up a tree. Jax held his breath and slowly scanned his surroundings. He spotted two more squirrels, a grass snake, a few robins, a grackle, and a vulture high in an oak. No sign of the intruder or any dangerous beasts.
He pulled out his compass, flipped the lid, and whispered a word. A glow of phosphorous green slowly seeped from the compass. Hoping nothing was just out of sight, he gave the area another slow scan. Some birds had flown away. A second grackle joined the first. All three squirrels disappeared. Nothing lumbered into the view, and that was what mattered.
Holding his breath, he looked down at the compass. Behind the glass, he could still see the letters signaling the four directions and a fuzzy arrow pointing north, but along the edges dots of different sizes throbbed. Three beasts due north. Tiny numbers in the dots indicated how many miles from his location. Six creatures arced to the east behind the blue dot that indicated him. One of those was only a quarter mile away. He turned and scanned the forest behind him.
He couldn’t see his closest problem. He flipped the lid closed and slipped the compass into its pocket. From the flap in the bag, he pulled out a forked black stick and placed his thumb over a spiral of nine dots. The rod swung him to the left.
Jax moved forward. Though he moved of his own volition, the persistent tug of the rod left the impression he was merely being dragged through the woods–especially when a tree blocked the path and Jax had to fight the rod in order to go around, rather than through, the tree.
The girl stood half behind a fat pine. She was young. Maybe fifteen, sixteen tops. Watching something in front of her, she didn’t notice Jax’s approach. He didn’t mean to scare her. He certainly hadn’t intended to make her scream. Definitely didn’t want to do anything to chance waking the matlose–or anything else.
She clapped her hand over her mouth and looked back into the clearing. Jax followed her gaze. The bristly creature snored on.
“What is that?” the girl asked.
Jax grabbed her arm and pulled her away. “Shh!”
She came willingly for about twenty feet before she dug in her heels and refused to go any further.
“Come on, we need to get out of here.”
The girl shook her head. “What is that thing? And where is here?”
“You’re just off the road. It’s probably some sort of wild bear.”
The girl raised her eyebrows. “Give me a break. We’re nowhere near the road. When the neighborhood disappeared, I looked around for the road. The woods go on forever without taking you there. And that is not a bear!”
Jax twisted his mouth in faked disbelief. “The road’s right over here. I’ll show you.”
She crossed her arms but followed him to the log. He gestured at the log. “This way.”
He stepped over and found himself alone on the side of the road. Dammit. He stepped back inside. Her jaw tightened to see him reappear.
“What did you do?” she asked.
“I went to the road. Come on, we need to get you home.”
The girl shook her head. “I’m not going in there.”
“In where?” The furrows in his brow were real this time.
“Okay, out there, back into the real world. What is this place?”
“Are you okay? You’re not making much sense.”
She snorted. “The road’s right on the other side of that log, isn’t it?”
He scratched his head, back to pretense. “It’s just past the trees. You can’t see it from here.”
The girl’s eyes narrowed. She heard the sarcastic “obviously” that he left unsaid. Stomping around the log to the nearest trees on its other side, she spun to face him triumphantly. “There’s no street here.”
“I didn’t say to go that way. I said to come this way.”
“I might not have climbed through a wardrobe, but I’m not stupid. This isn’t the normal world. That creature back there isn’t a bear and having the street accessible only if I climb over that log makes no sense. If you want me to go anywhere with you, you’d better start explaining.” Arms crossed again, she leaned against one of the trees and glowered at him.
“That creature could wake up any minute. It’s got good hearing. It’d be better if we moved out and then had this discussion.”
She raised her eyebrows. “No.”
“No? Did you hear what I said?”
“It’s beautiful here.” A slight smile crossed her face as she studied the trees.
“Be that as it may, we need to get you home.”
A hint of fear flickered through her defiance. Jax narrowed his eyes. She’d seen a creature that was all claws and bristles and three times bigger than any human, and going home was what scared her?
“I’m not–” A great honking drowned out whatever else the girl intended to say.
“What was that? Sounded like giant geese!” She spun and sped off the direction of the sound.
“No!” Dammit! Jax flew off after her. What kind of idiot was she? Who went running towards what might be giant geese? Not that the Preserve held any giant geese. He’d never heard of any such thing anywhere.
She made enough noise to wake and attract the entire woods as she ran. Snapped twigs that weren’t even under her feet. Green leaves cracked and crunched. Her footsteps echoed like a dinosaur lumbering across the woods. All that was missing were the snapping of trees caused by its bulk.
He picked up his speed. He ran daily. The job required he stay in top shape. But the girl continued to outdistance him. Jax cursed up a storm in his head. What was she? The high school track star?
She stumbled to a halt near a stream. Jax sent up a quick prayer of thanks for the running water. The stream was narrow enough to jump over, but the boundary would keep any magical creature on the other side of it.
Except the girl veered left and screamed. Something roared back. Jax’s curses spilled out of his mouth. He dashed forward, grabbed her, glanced at the water tiger, and pulled her across the stream.
Pointlessly. The water tiger simply bounded through the stream. Jax’s eyes widened. Oh, shit. Stupid. Water creature. Duh.
“Run!” He grabbed her hand and set off, full speed.
“Isn’t running from a tiger a bad idea?” the girl asked.
The thuds of the tiger’s steps spurred them on. Jax didn’t waste time looking over his shoulder. The nearest safe spot wasn’t far. The water tigers were fast, but not nearly as fast as their non-magical cousins, not when on land.
Since the other choice was give up and let it eat them, he chose to try.
The creature gained on them. Jax swore he could feel its breath on his back. But it hadn’t touched them yet. He swerved to the left, dragging her with him, and shoved her into the cave. He spared a moment to scoop pebbles from the “natural” bowl to the left of the cave’s entrance and scattered the pebbles in an arc on the ground.
Hand empty, he finally looked up. The water tiger screed to a halt two feet from where Jax stood. Jax cursed and ducked into the dark cave and right into the girl.
“That tiger was blue!”
“Won’t it follow us?”
“Shh. We’re okay. It’ll forget we’re here soon.” And then return to the water. Luckily, the water tigers did not like to be too long outside of water.
Jax felt along the wall and found the lantern. A soft yellow light filled the cave. Several crates–filled with food, drink, blankets and other supplies–lined the back wall.
“Is this where you live?”
Jax laughed. “Hardly.”
A roar shook the cave. The girl blanched.
“Don’t worry. It can’t get in here.”
“The cave entrance isn’t that narrow.” Her voice shook a bit.
Jax looked at the entrance. He’d signed contracts that prevented him from explaining the Preserve to anyone. He couldn’t tell her what the Preserve was or answer any questions about its inhabitants or magic.
“What is this place? Who are you? That was a blue tiger chasing us. Is it real? And why isn’t it even trying to get in? It would fit.”
The training scenarios usually involved dealing panicked and incoherent civilians, not ones who wanted it all explained to them. He hadn’t a clue how to deal with someone merely curious so decided to treat her as if she were hysterical. Pretend she was a normal person having a normal reaction. “I’m Jax. What’s your name?”
“Are you hungry or thirsty? I have–” A roar drowned him out. A series of chitters and squeaks and a squeal followed. Jax’s heart sank.
He bashed his fist against his forehead. Dammit, why couldn’t she have left when they had the chance?
“What is that? What’s going on out there?”
“We left a trail through the–” he caught himself. “We left a trail and everything out there smells us and is coming to check out the two-legged food.”
Her eyes grew bigger. She glanced at the entrance and back to him. “Will they get in?”
Scratching noises sounded overhead. Dust fell on their heads. Ana squeaked. “What do we do?”
“We wait. Eventually they’ll lose interest and go away.”
A roar reverberated through the entrance and rocked them both back. Eventually, Jax promised himself. He marked the time on his watch.
The girl took a deep breath. “Are you going to explain where we are? What those things are?”
She scowled at him.
Jax ignored her. Digging through the crates, he found bottled waters for them both and offered her a granola bar. Ana must have realized her glower was not the least bit intimidating. Taking the food and water, she turned to face the cave entrance.
The amount of noise coming from that direction sounded like half the Preserve had been roused by their pursuit. Marvelous. Jax sighed. The clean up on this was going to take a week or more. This shelter would need to be relocated.
Oh, and the meetings this would spawn. Jax hoped that only one meeting loomed in his future, but he knew that to be foolish hope. If he was lucky, he’d get away with no more than three. He took a deep breath.
It would be fine. The creatures would get bored. The filter over the cave’s entrance cut sound, sight, and smell. There was nothing here to keep the creatures attracted. It might take an hour. Might be longer. He shouldn’t have to call this in.
Jax growled in his head at the thought. With the attitude he gave Melina last night, having to call from the field to let them know he’d screwed up and was trapped would be so humiliating.
He sighed and checked the watch again. Only five minutes had passed. Ana rose and took a couple of steps towards the entrance. “You said they can’t get in?”
“They can’t. You’re safe in here. I promise.”
“Can they see in?”
The girl raised her eyebrows. “But we can see them? I’m going for a look.”
“Don’t cross out of the cave!”
That earned him a roll of the eyes.
She sauntered to the entrance, wrapped her arms around her chest, and stared out. With her back to him, Jax couldn’t tell if she was scared or horrified. The last person he hadn’t gotten out of the Preserve before contact with a creature had gone into hysterics and fainted. He’d been a bit heavy, but carrying the unconscious man out had made for an easy cleanup.
The cave rocked. Ana screamed and staggered away from the entrance.
“You said they couldn’t get in.”
“Shut up a minute.” Jax shot to his feet and pushed past her to the entrance. He huffed. They had a water tiger, a mich-pichoux, two giant turtles–they’d probably drawn them from the stream they’d crossed–and four tsiatkos out front. This close to the outside, he could hear something scratching directly over head. No telling how many of what were above and around the cave. Something huge lurked out of sight. That was the only way to explain the shaking of the cave.
“What are you doing?” Ana asked.
He ignored her. The mich-pichoux growled at the water tiger. The water tiger hissed. Good. Maybe they’d all chase each other off soon.
His leg exploded in fire. He screamed and looked down to see a red tentacle protruding from a crack in the ground wrapped around his calf.
“Give me my bag!” He screeched at the girl. Ana stared at the tentacle. “MY BAG! ANA!”
The girl jumped, spun, and grabbed the bag. She held it out to him. Gritting his teeth against the pain, Jax shook his head. “Open the main section. There’s a green bottle in there.”
Ana stepped a pace back and knelt, placing the bag on the floor. She pulled out three other bottles before finding one that was green.
“Give it here.” His voice came out three octaves too high. His jaw was clenched so tightly his teeth felt like they were about to shatter. Tears streamed down his face and blurred ability to see the bottle in his shaking hands. He couldn’t get the cork out.
“Here. I’ll open it for you.”
The bottle nearly dropped from his shaking hand. Ana cursed and stepped in to grab it. She pulled the cork free and shoved the bottle back at him. He turned it over and dumped the contents over the tentacle.
The tentacle fled into the earth. Something down deep below them screamed. The gap remained.
“You said they couldn’t get in,” Ana whispered.
Jax hobbled away from the crack. He fell to his knees and crawled to the back of the cave, dragging his bag with him. The bottom of his pants hung in shreds and stinging ooze coated the remnants. He jerked a pair of gloves out of the bag first, then scissors.
The girl babbled questions, but her words were background noise.
His sodden pant leg fought the scissors. Of course, dammit, where was his brain? He wiped the scissors on the back of his left glove and used the cleaned scissors to cut away the dry cloth a hand’s span above the destroyed wet tatters. He tossed the sodden shredded scrap aside. His exposed leg was entirely red ooze.
Jax sucked air through his gritted teeth. His hand trembled so badly he couldn’t work the zipper on the section he needed. Ana came forward and pushed his hand aside. She opened the pocket.
“What do you need?”
“Everything in there.”
She pulled out the gauze first, followed by the jars. Jax snatched the antibiotic spray. He screamed a curse when it contacted his leg. Ana flinched and asked him something. Wheezing, Jax sprayed the rest of his leg. The numbing agents in the spray took forever to activate. He set the spray aside and unscrewed the jar with the healing plaster inside. He took a deep breath and realized that his hand wasn’t shaking as hard. His leg was starting to feel–well, stopping to feel. Good.
He dipped his fingers in the tub of plaster and slathered it over the numb leg. That should draw any poisons out. He wrapped the leg in gauze and glanced around to see where the girl had gone.
Ana hovered near the crates. Her eyes scanned the ground. A chill ran down Jax’s spine. Damn, she was right. If that creature had breached the floor in once place, this entire cave was compromised.
His injuries were taken care of. How long would it take for the creature to do the same? The magic inhibitor he’d dumped on the tentacle should keep that one down for at least a little while. Of course, that one might not be alone.
Time to admit he was in over his head. This was beyond his ability to keep quiet or handle on his own. They were trapped, he was seriously injured, and their shelter was compromised. He drew his all-realm phone from his pocket and sighed.
“Who are you calling?”
Jax didn’t have it in him to talk about what was going on. He sent Melina a text. “My superiors.”
“Where are they?”
Ana gaped at him. “What good is that going to do us? They’re states away!”
He added another sentence to the text and sent it. Setting the phone aside, he took a big swig of water. It helped with neither the fever nor the vertigo he was refusing to acknowledge. Come on, Melina, answer. He knew his text would have forced her to make some calls and she would need at least a minute to type up an answer, but each second dragged. He wanted help now.
Ana paced uneasily. He’d love to join her but wasn’t putting weight on this leg until he had to. His phone chirruped. Jax took a deep breath and read her instructions. Shit.
He dropped the phone in his pocket and scrambled to gather the supplies he’d left strewn around himself and shove the ones that weren’t empty back into his bag.
“Get your bag. We’ve got about sixty seconds before we’re leaving.”
“What?” Ana stopped pacing and merely stared at him.
“GET YOUR BAG!”
He dragged his bag to the side of the cave and used the wall to help himself stand. The world wobbled a bit. Holding the wall, he took a few deep breaths before swinging his bag onto his back. Ana copied him without waiting for instructions. Good.
Jax hopped once and realized trying out his leg outside would be a really bad idea. He lowered the leg and put weight on it. There was a big of a pull, a hint of pain, but he could walk on it. Should be able to run on it. Had to regardless.
“What way? There’s no other entrance.”
Jax gritted his teeth. “Here.”
He stepped through a shadow cast by a protrusion of stone. He heard Ana gasp to see him disappear.
“Come on!” he called.
Her footsteps crunched on the loose gravel and dirt of the corridor. At least she listened sometimes.
Jax led her around a corner where sunlight spilled through the vines that grew across the back way out. They were about six steps from the exit when a sonic boom shook the trees in the distance.
Anna shrieked. “Oh my god, what was that?”
“Our distraction. Come on!” Jax took her hand. Couldn’t see a creature in the area, though something was trumpeting and there were definitely thudding footsteps moving at speed close by.
“Run,” Jax said. His leg screaming, burning, Jax led them through the woods, over another stream, and along its bank. Several more bangs sounded further away.
“Where are we going?”
“Shh! Don’t draw attention to us. They’ve set off those sounds to distract anything in the area and cover our escape.”
The river widened and the ground around it grew slick. They had to slow down. Jax was glad of it. The world spun around him. Rainbows swirled around his head and made seeing where he walked even more difficult.
“Where are we going?” Ana asked again. This time with a definite whine in her voice.
“Next nearest bolt hole,” he wheezed.
“Why don’t we just leave?”
“There are too many creatures between us and the exit. Melina said to go this way.”
“Aren’t we going further from the way out though?”
Jax skidded and would have landed on his knees if Ana hadn’t caught him.
“Are you okay?”
“Careful on the slime here.” Jax took a deep breath and led on. They were almost there. Thankfully. He needed to sit down. Badly. Sun spots danced before his eyes. Sweat trickled down his back. April shouldn’t be this hot.
The water rippled.
Jax caught Ana’s arm and hissed, “Be as quiet as possible. We don’t want to wake the serpent.”
Though those ripples implied they already had.
Ana opened her mouth, but Jax put a finger over his lips. She scowled, but snapped her mouth closed.
Slipping, sliding, and silently cursing, Jax led her along the banks to the mossy stones near the waterfall. The cave went behind the waterfall, but fortunately the entrance and exit were on the cliff sides on the banks. Jax would never have been able to navigate the submerged, slime-covered rocks with his head spinning like this.
Even so, he stumbled over his own two feet twice on the way into the cave. The path skirted around the water that pooled along the right-hand side and followed the curve of the cave around into the first chamber. He flicked on the lantern hanging over several huge plastic lockers and turned back to Ana.
“We’ll wait here for–” The walls of the cave darkened and folded in on him.
Jax blinked and stared at the stalactites over head.
Fingers pried his mouth open. Something dropped in and water followed. Jax choked and tried to pull away. Ana covered his mouth.
“Swallow that! You need it to counteract the poison.”
He was so startled at her words, he swallowed. Ana took her hand off his mouth.
“The creature that attacked your leg. It was poisonous.”
Jax stared at her. “What did you give me.”
“One of these.” Ana held up a little glass jar filled with tiny white pills. The label was in no script the girl could ever have been able to read. He only knew a few dozen words in that language himself, including that one on the label. She couldn’t have. It was impossible.
“How did you know what…?” He shook his head. Maybe he dreamed this. None of it made sense.
Jax bolted upright. “She’s here!”
“No, you fool. I called her.” Ana held up his all-realm phone.
“You couldn’t have.” He reached out and snatched it from her.
“It’s just a phone. No matter how weird.” Ana rolled her eyes.
“It’s password protected!”
“By your thumbprint. I had that.”
He stared at her. She lifted his free hand and waved it at him. He jerked his hand free. “And you called…”
“Melina. I checked your texts and called the number you’d been texting. That’s your second antidote pill. You’ll need a third in another four hours. Want something to eat?”
Jax glanced at the wrappers on the floor near her. She’d gotten into the crates for a meal. He looked down at his phone. 4:17 p.m. He blinked at the time and checked his call log. A call had been made to Melina at 12:43. It had lasted half an hour. He looked at Ana and hit call.
Jax frowned. “No, this is Jax. What the hell is going on?”
“Is Ana not there?”
“Yes, she’s here.” Jax glared at Ana.
Melina repeated pretty much what Ana had said. “Kirby and Sherwen are on their way. They’ll get the two of you out and do clean up.”
“I can do that.”
“Jax, don’t be a fool. Your system is full of poison. Ana could probably get the two of you out, but that’s not a test your new apprentice is ready for.”
“My new what?”
BIO: Lynn Rushlau graduated from the University of Texas with a degree in Anthropology and minor in Sociology–which seem like awesome planning for a life creating cultures and societies, but she’ll admit to not have been thinking that far in advance. She lives in Addison, Texas with two attention-needy cats, and can be found on twitter at lrushlau.