Chapter 29 — The Battle of Lakewood
”Why train for combat, she asks? Ah, my Ruby, if only I could view the world through as bright and pure a lens as your own.”
~Cinza, the Rallsburg Diaries
Hailey twisted into a hard roll, banking across the low cloud layer as they swooped down. She was pouring all her effort into flying. Every wing beat was accompanied by raw magical thrust backward, while a wedge of force in front of her pushed aside any air resistance to help them go even faster.
Jeremy heaved, his hands clamped to his mouth. She wrapped her arms tighter around his chest, feeding magic through her arms to keep her muscles strong. Even so, the strain of carrying a man twice her weight was hell on her triceps. Jessica was doing her best to share her own magic, keeping the flow open while clinging to Hailey like a backpack.
The odd trio dove in fast and hard over the interstate, right at the entrance to Tacoma. The road was surprisingly clear, even for the middle of the night on a Friday. Between the arcs of the street lights lining the main road, Hailey spotted the bright yellow-orange flashes, hurled forward from the driver-side window of the little car. The truck in front weaved through traffic with skill as it dodged each bolt.
”What do we do?” shouted Hailey.
”Get me… in… a fuckin’… car!” Jeremy grunted, barely audible over the screaming wind.
”Neither!” He pointed wildly toward a few cars that had pulled off the side far ahead of the chase, warned by the police to clear the road. “I’ll take one of theirs!”
Hailey dove before asking any questions, trusting Jeremy knew what he was doing. They touched down on the pavement to a gawking crowd motorists. Jeremy stumbled as he landed, but recovered quick enough, to her relief. She stuck around just a moment while he commandeered a vehicle, then took off again with Jessica still clinging to her back.
Beating her wings hard, she got some altitude, trying to find the two cars again. What the hell is this? A car chase? What’s going on?
Hailey still had no ideas—but if someone awakened was involved, no matter what, it couldn’t be good. She decided to go after them first, to try and get some answers. After all, she knew practically everybody. Whomever it was, Hailey was confident she could talk them out of this insanity.
She rolled again, building up speed and straightening out her trajectory. Her wings folded in and she dropped into a dive, hurtling straight for the two cars. Hailey stayed high enough to avoid any stray gunfire, while Jessica switched to an invisible shield of force surrounding them. In theory it could block a bullet or two—so long as Jessica’s energy and supply of gemstones held out. They’d never tested it, thank god, but the magic should work.
Still, Hailey wasn’t about to try their luck.
She swooped around wide, and dropped down almost to the street level well behind the second car. Hailey had flown this fast before, but never like this—three feet off the asphalt, drafting behind a car, with gunfire pounding back at her. A bullet clanged off the side of the car, but none followed. Hailey took that as a reload, and seized the opportunity.
With a huge burst of air thrusting her forward, Hailey swung around the passenger side and grabbed desperately for the door handle with her mind. It took a second, and the door flew open, though the wind pressure was already forcing it back.
Hailey dove in, Jessica still on top of her. The sprawled onto the passenger seat just as the door slammed shut behind them.
”What the fuck?”
She twisted around and upright, sitting on her legs. Jessica crouched low in the space beneath the glove compartment. Hailey turned to confront the driver—and her mouth fell open.
Rika Nishimura gaped right back at her, until a another gunshot twisted her around to the road. She swerved away, out of the line of fire.
The car started to tip slightly. Rika growled something incomprehensible and slammed her fist down in midair. The side of the vehicle thumped back onto the pavement.
”Rika?” Hailey gasped.
”Could ask you the same fucking thing!” she snapped. She leaned out of the window and hurled another fireball from her hand, just barely missing the rear wheel of the car. “Shit!”
”What’s going on?”
”Gotta stop that fucking car.”
Not enough time to ask why. This is insane. We gotta stop this now. Hailey saw the car Jeremy had commandeered swing out onto the road. He was going to try and ram them off, she was sure. “Use lightning?”
”Can’t. Might hit him.”
”The motherfuckers took Ryan,” she snarled.
”…Oh god.” Hailey amplified her voice, trying to send it through the open window all the way to Jeremy’s car. “Jeremy! Can you hear me?”
”You crazy, Hales?” asked Rika, confused.
”Shut up, Rika. I’m trying something.” Hailey adjusted the flow of the soundwaves again, trying to block out the massive noise from every direction. “Jeremy!”
”Shit…” Rika gasped. Hailey hadn’t been very precise, so Jeremy’s voice echoed through the whole car as if he were shouting from right next to them.
”Turn that shit down,” he added.
”Jeremy, they’ve got a hostage.”
Rika threw another fireball at the tires, but missed. The burst of flame splashed across the pavement, leaving another little flickering torch in the trail she’d left down the whole highway.
”This car’s got one of my friends, and they’ve got another. We need to stop them clean.”
”Police are settin’ up a line down the road.”
”Shit!” he grunted.
She didn’t need to ask. The truck had just side-swiped his car, knocking him away, before barrelling down the nearest exit. Hailey lost the audio from Jeremy entirely as his car spun out.
”Who the fuck was that?” asked Rika as she spun the wheel, following the truck down.
”Friend.” Hailey leaned forward, trying to reach out as far as she could with her own magic. “Get me closer. I might be able to slash the tires.”
”I’m trying.” They were speeding down city streets now, weaving through the thin evening traffic. “Fuck!”
A car pulled out in front of them from a side street, perpendicular. Hailey grabbed Jessica’s hand, and at the same time hurled their car into the air. They sailed across the intersection, twelve feet up. Groaning from the effort, Hailey set them down, spinning wheels catching the pavement and barely losing them any momentum.
Rika fought with the wheel to regain control. They started to spin out, but Hailey shoved at the side of the car from the outside. With Jessica’s help, she forced it back into alignment and didn’t lose an ounce of speed.
”This is insane!” Hailey shouted.
Rika laughed grimly. “No shit! Welcome to my life!”
The truck was only a few blocks ahead. It peeled around a corner, and they followed at breakneck speed. The streetlights were practically a blur as they sped by. Cars peeled out of the way as the truck blared its horn.
Hailey’s phone rang. She grabbed it up from her belt.
”I lost you guys,” said Jeremy.
”We’re on…” Hailey trailed off. Even with her eyes, she couldn’t catch the street signs as they sped past. “I can’t tell. We’re gaining on them though.”
”You guys got a chopper tail. I’ll find you. Just need a new car. Stay on ’em.” Jeremy hung up.
”Hope you’re okay with being on the news,” said Hailey, clipping her phone to her belt. She grabbed onto the window handle as they swerved around another curve. Rika put them into a drift, closing the gap a little bit more. “Where’d you learn that?”
”Street racing. Pissing my dad off and risking his cars doing it.” They turned again onto a long, narrow freeway. There wasn’t another turn as far as she could see, so they had a chance to catch up. “Hold onto your tits, Hales.”
Rika floored the accelerator. The car leapt forward like a pouncing cat. Hailey felt like she’d been hurled back into her chair. Rika had a powerful car, and she knew how to drive it well.
They were gaining on the truck, fast. Hailey kept reaching, even as the acceleration pressed her back into the seat. She could almost feel the tires. If she could just get at the air inside…
The truck screeched. Smoke billowed from the tires as it slowed down—moving toward them.
Rika ducked. Hailey followed a split-second later.
Gunfire rattled through the windows, shattering the windshield and the passenger window. The car slumped as one tire fell flat, then another. They had at least two or three guns, by Hailey’s guess. Nothing automatic, but plenty of bullets between them… and they were getting away.
She hadn’t gotten the tires.
”Rika?” she asked, as the car skidded across the pavement.
”Chikushou!” Rika shouted, pounding the wheel with her hand.
Hailey shook her head. She kicked the door open before they’d even lost half of their speed, and grabbed Rika around the waist. “Come on!”
Fuckin’ hell. Jeremy jammed at the buttons on his phone. “Stebbins, pick up the fucking phone!”
”Are you still in Tacoma?” he shouted, running down the sidewalk.
”Get to the south end, near… Lakewood and 74th. Fuck!” Jeremy nearly tripped over a flipped over bicycle someone had abandoned on the sidewalk.
”What’s going on?”
”The motherfuckers are back.”
Jeremy hung up and kept running, following the beam of the helicopter light. Where’s Lani when you need him? I need a real fuckin’ driver. Got rammed off the road by a fuckin’ amateur.
He spotted another car, with a dazed-looking driver who’d gotten sideswiped by the truck. It looked intact—and tough enough to take a few more hits. He ran up to the driver. “Hey.”
He flashed his badge. “Jeremy Ashe, FBI. I need your car. You’ll be paid for it.”
”…Yeah, okay.” The guy stepped away, hands in the air. “Keys are in there.”
You’re not under arrest, you idiot. “Thanks.” Jeremy got in, closing the door and sliding the seat back at the same time. He kicked it on and squealed back onto the road. The truck had taken the long way, but Jeremy had rolled around Tacoma enough in the last four months to know a shortcut. He’d cut them off at the other end.
Gunning the engine, he sped down the side street, wishing he had a proper siren and lights. Jeremy hadn’t threaded a line through traffic in years. He kept leaning forward, checking the helicopter light in the distance, trying to gauge when they’d exit out of the long thoroughfare. Jeremy leaned down on the pedal, speeding up to cut the truck off.
The helicopter was still in-line with Lakewood and heading south. Jeremy could beat them there. He was on track.
The light buckled in midair. Jeremy squinted at it. Was it… moving?
It shattered. A stray, lucky gunshot, maybe—Jeremy couldn’t tell. The light vanished. The helicopter peeled off, just barely visible from its collision lights against the dark sky.
Nowhere to change course, unless he wants to get caught in a neighborhood. He has to come out the south side of Lakewood. Nowhere to run, motherfucker.
Jeremy peeled out in front of the road, parking his truck directly in the middle of the lanes. He dove out immediately, just in case, but as he got to his feet, he saw that the truck was still on the way, a pair of lights hurtling down the road straight at him. The trees lined both sides of the road like a long tunnel. Behind him was the city, but in front may as well have been an empty field.
He ran to the side of the road, drawing his pistol.
The truck barreled at him, blaring its horn. It wasn’t slowing down. Jesus Christ, is he gonna try to ram it out of the way? He doesn’t have that kind of torque. He’s a fuckin’ psycho.
And he’s got a hostage.
Jeremy was about to open fire on the tires when Hailey swooped out of nowhere. She lunged out of the darkness carrying Jessica and someone else he couldn’t make out. They dove down near the truck, and the other figure made a slashing motion with her hand.
The front tire exploded.
Hailey swung out wide, but the shreds of the tire had already caught them like shrapnel from a grenade. They stumbled in midair—if that was even possible—and Hailey dipped low.
The trio fell into the grass ditch by the road, out of sight.
Sparks flew from the front of the truck body as it screeched across the pavement. It ground to a halt, long before it reached Jeremy’s makeshift barricade.
Three men leapt out, weapons drawn. They took aim at Hailey, who had just risen to her feet off in the roadside ditch.
Jeremy opened fire.
Hailey dropped to the ground as soon as she heard the angry popping sounds.
”Fuck!” Rika pressed a hand over a bloody patch in her side. “The fuck was that?”
”They’ve still got guns,” Hailey shot back. “Stay down.”
Jessica was flat on the ground, eyes forward. She gestured with her hand. A bright blue fireball appeared and hurtled over the top of the ditch, in the general direction of the truck. She threw a few more, before Rika grabbed her hand. “Ryan’s in there!” she shouted. When Jessica just stared at her blankly, Rika turned to Hailey. “Help me out here.”
Hailey took a second, then pointed at where the truck would be, if they were standing up. She mimed grabbing her own arm and dragging herself away, then held her hands up to her neck. She pointed at the truck again, emphasizing it.
Jessica nodded. A second later, she vanished.
”Jess!” Hailey cried, but she was gone.
”Holy shit,” gasped Rika. “You can turn invisible now?”
”She’s going after Ryan,” said Hailey, trying to keep the fear out of her voice. She doesn’t even know who’s in there. It’s our best move though… She can just walk right up to them. Maybe—
Jessica cried out in alarm.
Hailey’s heart stopped. Without thinking, she bolted over the edge of the ditch into the open.
A huge burly beast of a man—someone who looked like he was barely contained by his own skin—was holding… nothing. Except that nothing was struggling against his grip, and he had a pistol up against her head.
Hailey raised her hands, about to snatch the pistol away, but his other man had a gun on her as well. She froze. She didn’t dare move an inch.
Another gunshot from far down the street, plinking off the truck cab as the men crouched behind it.
”Do it, bitch. I dare you,” the man grunted, spitting blood out of his mouth.
Jessica reappeared, her face pinched up. She couldn’t breathe. Her hands beat at the man’s arm, but she couldn’t break free. She never learned how to make herself stronger… none of us knew how back then.
”You can’t get out of this,” Hailey said slowly. “Your car’s toast.”
The guy shrugged. His face twisted into a wicked smile. “So’s your girl, if you don’t back off.”
Jessica’s arms were getting weaker. Hailey felt real pain in her chest, though she hadn’t been injured at all. “Let her go,” she pleaded, holding her hands up. She took a step away.
”Fuck you,” he said. His finger began to squeeze the trigger.
Hailey screamed. She hurled herself forward, ripping the pistol out of his hand with her mind. The bullet fired, and a splatter of blood flew out wide.
Hailey’s fist, laced with magic, blew through the man’s face. His nose shattered, and his skull probably went along with it.
The man slammed into the body of the truck. The back of his head flattened against the metal. He slid down the side. She had no idea if he’d survived.
The other two men raised their guns. Hailey whipped around.
A crackle of blue electricity flickered through the air. It struck the first man, then jumped to the second. Both fell to the ground, twitching like mad. The bolt of electricity jumped a third time to the truck, before dissipating with a pop.
Rika lowered her hand, still clutching her bloody hip with the other.
Hailey fell to the ground. Jessica’s face was a mess of blood. Hailey cradled her head in her lap, wiping away the blood from her forehead, trying to see the wound. Jessica twisted around feebly, murmuring something. The graze wasn’t deep, but she was really shook up.
Hailey gasped in relief. She seemed okay, just grazed. She was already starting to mumble something, the usual sing-song tone that meant she was fine and Hailey didn’t need to worry. Not that Hailey couldn’t worry after something like that. For a brief, terrible moment, she’d actually thought Jessica might be—
Another gunshot, and another. A final, much louder shot in rapid succession.
Jessica cried out.
One of the men on the pavement jerked. His head exploded. Rika dove to the ground, and threw her hand out wide. The other pistol in the last man’s grip slid across the pavement a dozen feet, while he continued to twitch on the ground.
Jessica was clutching her leg, where a bloody hole leaked fluid at an alarming rate. One bullet had flown right through her left shin and another through her thigh, missing Hailey by an inch. The man had barely managed to aim and pull the trigger despite being tazed by Rika into submission… and Jessica had been shot.
”Jeremy!” Hailey shouted, her voice ragged. She threw magic into it heedless, raising it to deafening volumes. “Call an ambulance!”
She barely heard an acknowledgment, still clutching Jessica in her arms. Rika crawled over next to her, pointing out where to hold the wound and apply pressure. Her hands were slick with blood, but Hailey managed it. The flow stopped. Jessica looked like she was getting better already, though she kept writhing and trying to get away from Hailey’s grip.
”Oh sweet God in heaven…” Jeremy gasped as he finally came around to the back of the truck. He stared down at Hailey, tear-streaked and desperately holding Jessica’s leg in place while she moaned in pain. “It’s on the way, Jess. Hang in there.”
”Jess?” Hailey whispered.
Jessica looked around, eyes fluttering. She saw Hailey and smiled.
”Ryan,” Rika groaned, pulling herself up the side of the truck. She opened the cab door, digging through the backseat. “Holy shit. Ryan, wake up.”
Sirens preceded the ambulance, swerving around Jeremy’s truck at the end of the street. It pulled up next to them, within just a few feet.
The EMTs bolted out, and grabbed Jessica up out of Hailey’s arms. She clawed after them, but Jeremy held her back. They worked quickly to stabilize her wound as best they could, before they loaded her into the back. Hailey took an awkward step toward the ambulance—and the rending, earsplitting cry of metal tearing apart stopped her in her tracks.
Hailey whirled around. Rika was lugging an unconscious Ryan away from the suddenly bisected truck. Jeremy had his pistol drawn and was backing away from a huge, faceless golem.
Can’t catch a single fuckin’ break! “Stebbins!” Jeremy shouted through his earpiece.
”Nothing, sir!” he called back, barely audible through the crappy cell phone connection. Jeremy wished they had a proper radio, but he had to improvise.
”Fucker’s got a black stick he uses to make the bastards! Find him!” Jeremy turned and kept moving, while the golem advanced on the other three. He yelled at the paramedics to get moving. “That thing doesn’t care about you! Get out of here!”
The ambulance shrieked away, ferrying Jessica out of the fight. Hailey, screaming in rage, grabbed up the entire front half of the truck body by its fender. She twisted around, then swung it like a massive baseball bat.
Metal smashed against solid amorphous asphalt. The golem skidded across the pavement, cracking up the pavement as it went. Part of it was annihilated by the sheer impact—but as it turned and started advancing again, it shifted, and soon looked the same as it always did.
”Let’s just get the fuck out of here!” he shouted. “Leave that thing!”
Hailey shook her head. She hurled the truck cab at the golem, driving it back another couple dozen feet. “I’m going to find him. Right now.”
”They shot Jessica!“
Hailey burst into the air, climbing two dozen feet up in a second. She twisted around left and right, and the whole place lit up with fire. A dozen spheres of withering flame erupted around her in a huge circle, illuminating the whole street. The trees on the sides of the road wilted under the sudden blazing heat. A few caught fire. Jeremy scanned the area, but he couldn’t see anyone either.
The Japanese girl with the tattoos carrying the unconscious blonde-haired white guy—Ryan fucking Walker, Jeremy realized with a start—looked up as well. She was bleeding too, but not severely. “Hales, we need to get the fuck out of here!”
As if to echo her point, another gunshot echoed down the street. Someone screamed.
Jeremy whipped around. That was from the neighborhood. What the fuck?
”Shots fired, southeast. Somewhere in the residences. Unclear. Heavier than a pistol, sir. Rifle fire.”
Jesus Christ. “Cover us.” He glared up at Hailey. “Hailey, it’s not clear! We gotta move!”
”So move!” she shouted back.
Well, can’t argue with that. Jeremy moved to grab Ryan’s other shoulder, and between the two of them, they made a pretty good pace down the road toward Stebbins’ position. As soon as they reached Jeremy’s commandeered truck, they loaded Ryan into the back seat. He was still groggy, but coming to fast.
”Who the fuck are you?” the girl asked.
”Fuck me, the FBI guy? You’re with Hailey?”
”Yeah.” He glanced around. Another couple gunshots rang out, cracking down into the bushes on the right side of the road. The shots seemed to be coming from the houses along the same side, right near Jeremy and his truck. The houses were on an elevated patch of land overlooking a huge field to the north, forming a wall of buildings that started the neighborhood. The ground level of the houses was a good ten feet up on stone foundation, behind a row of tall bushes and a cheap fence. “What the hell are they shooting at?”
”And who the fuck’s doing the shooting?” the girl added.
”Hailey!” Jeremy shouted, trying to get her attention. Hailey was still flitting back and forth over the street to the north, while a circle of fireballs provided light for her in every direction. She whipped around at his call, the fire turning in sync with her. “Grab the fucker who’s still alive down there! I need to talk to him!”
To his relief, she did it, swooping down to snatch him up and flying to their truck. She deposited him like a sack of bricks into the truck bed. Before she could take off again, Jeremy caught her by the sleeve.
”Let me go,” Hailey said, tugging away. Jeremy felt like she might break his arm if she pulled any harder, even though she was barely putting in any effort.
”Hailey, they’re armed. You fly, you’re just an easier target.” Jeremy got into the truck bed, and slapped sense back into the man she’d picked up. “Stay down til we figure out what the fuck’s going on.”
A huge crash from up in the neighborhood, something they couldn’t see. A cloud of dust blew through the air a second later. More screaming, and the sounds of people running. The gunfire picked up, now accompanied by an automatic weapon. Holy fuck.
”Stebbins, call in some backup. Every single thing you can get,” Jeremy snapped. The man nodded and got on the phone, while he got back to his impromptu interrogation. “Hey, hey you. Wake up.”
”Go… go fuck yourself.”
”Did that this morning.” Jeremy slapped him again. “What the fuck is going on?”
The man didn’t respond. He just glared. Jeremy started to dig through his pockets, but the man didn’t react in the slightest. He’s way too good for this. They had a pro driving that thing. He doesn’t care if I search him. This guy isn’t one of Brian’s. Sure enough, Jeremy didn’t find a single useful thing in the man’s pockets. Ammo, smokes, and some loose cash. Not even a wallet.
”Who are you workin’ for?” he asked, slapping the guy in the face again.
The Japanese girl’s face paled at Jeremy’s question. “Thought he was with Brian.”
”No fuckin’ way. This guy isn’t some riled up civvie.”
She shook her head in dismay. “No fucking way. They wouldn’t.”
”Rika?” asked Hailey.
Rika ignored her and leapt onto the truck bed. “Hey, asshole. Hey, wake up.”
He spat onto the truck bed. “What?”
”You know a guy named Viper?”
A split-second reaction, which was more than enough for both of them. She slugged the guy in the chest, causing him to cough up hard and double over.
Jeremy turned around. “The fuck was that? Who’s Viper?”
”A mercenary with a shitload of capital behind him.” Rika glanced up at the row of houses. “And I’ll bet anything he’s the one with the guns up there. This just became a threeway. Not the fun kind, either.”
”What happened to him?” asked Hailey. “Alden never said.”
”I made a deal with him to get out of town. So apparently he’s a motherfucking backstabbing bakayaro!” Rika’s voice rose to a fever pitch as she glared up to the row of houses. “Asshole!”
”—told not to touch you,” muttered the mercenary.
”Shinjimae,” Rika snapped, kicking him in the chest. She winced in pain from the action, clutching her side. “The fuck do we do now?” She glanced at Hailey, and Jeremy followed her gaze.
Hailey was looking up at the row of houses, where another round of gunfire echoed out into the street. Another muffled explosion. A second house had collapsed, throwing another pile of dust into the air behind the row they could see.
”Hailey, wait—” Jeremy started, but it didn’t matter. A rush of wind blasted his face as Hailey took off, hurtling into the sky.
He twisted around. If she’s gonna go, I’m gonna get her everything I fuckin’ can. “Stebbins, where’s that fucking backup?”
Hailey swung around the south end of the block, opposite the gunfire. She took a quick survey from afar, squinting in the dim light. Most of the street lights were out (shot out, in fact, as she peered more closely), and she could make out guns peeking through second floor windows and over the edge of balconies. People were streaming out of the block to the south and east as fast as they could, fleeing the gunfire and the monsters.
Oh god… not this. Please, not this. Not again.
Viper’s men hadn’t learned how to deal with the golems yet, apparently. As one of them burst onto the street from the alley between two houses, a rattle of gunfire peppered it. It moved, as if sentient, to respond, sliding across the street. As it did, a rougher-sounding gun—a hunting rifle, in comparison to the modern military pops from Viper’s men—opened up in return.
A balcony window shattered, just above a rifle that Hailey could barely see even from her vantage. The man holding it didn’t move an inch, even with a gunshot that missed him by centimeters.
Return fire flooded the street. A puff of blood behind a fence as one of Brian’s men took a bullet and collapsed. The golem continued forward, approaching the patch of grass along the sidewalk in front of the houses. It slid up the curb, making for the house with the most gunfire.
The sidewalk exploded.
Hailey looked away before the flash blinded her. As she turned back, she realized it was actually the grass that had exploded, though the sidewalk around it hadn’t done much better. A crater had completely replaced the stretch of concrete and dirt.
The golem was gone.
Okay, so explosives can kill them… Good to know.
As she watched, Viper’s men were starting to retreat. Police cars rolled up, lights and sirens blaring. A helicopter with a spotlight beat its way in on the air currents, not that far from where Hailey was flapping in place, and another was en route. The mercenaries fled to the west, blending in with the civilians or just fading into the forest. Hailey considered diving after one of them, but she wasn’t sure she could beat them one on one. Not in her current state.
She was totally exhausted after the day she’d had. She’d flown up to Tacoma faster than she’d ever flown before. Even now, she was relying on her tourmaline pendant just to stay airborne.
Hailey kept scanning the area, and tried to force her eyes into better night vision. She wanted to catch Brian, or whichever of Brian’s men was summoning the golems. She couldn’t see anything though, just tons of faceless people. He could be anyone, or he could even be hiding inside one of the houses. It wasn’t like she could just go through every house and interrogate them one by one—as tempted as she was by that idea.
Jess… Oh god. She must be in so much pain right now.
Reluctantly, Hailey gave up on finding anyone. She’d lost track of Viper’s men, and she had no idea where Brian’s might be. It was too much of a mess, and now with rescue vehicles and the huge police presence, she couldn’t do anything.
I can help. Jess would want me to help.
There was someone crying out in pain. Hailey zeroed in on it. She dove toward the wrecked house, landing in the debris outside the front door. Firefighters were already trying to bust though the front door. Hailey hurried forward and slammed into it with her shoulder, blasting through it.
With the two guys at her back, she sprinted through the house and up the damaged staircase. A young man was trapped underneath a fallen beam, his arm pinned. The firefighters started to call for equipment, but Hailey shook her head.
She grabbed the huge crossbeam with both arms, prepping the spell as she did. She was still exhausted, and could feel the magic draining from the gemstone just to pull this off, but she had to. After what she’d done down on the street… she couldn’t leave.
The firefighters braced the guy, then one of them gave her a signal. Hailey grunted with exertion as she heaved the beam up and out of the way. They slid him out, and started bandaging his wound even as they carried him bodily from the building. A split-second later, Hailey found out why they were rushing.
The beam, lifted free of supporting the structure frame, split in half. The ceiling collapsed, with Hailey underneath.
”Jeremy Ashe, FBI,” he growled, as some overeager police officer tried to get in his way. “Move!”
”But sir, the area’s not clear!”
Jeremy ignored him, dashing into the cul-de-sac. News teams were arriving now too, just behind the rescue crews. A news chopper hovered on the opposite side from the police spotlight. Rika followed a few steps behind him. Stebbins had taken Ryan and their hostage away in the truck, promising Jeremy that nobody would find Viper’s man until he wanted it.
Five houses had collapsed. There was dust and debris everywhere. Bullet holes covered fences, mailboxes, walls. A few men were dead in the street on the north side—likely Brian’s men. Jeremy didn’t see a single figure that looked to be one of Viper’s. Two of the front yards looked like they’d been hit by artillery fire, with huge craters sinking into the dirt.
”Jesus Christ,” he muttered, taking in the destruction.
Rika was speechless, following behind him. They hurried to where they’d last seen Hailey dive—the absolute worst house, of course. As they approached, it buckled in even further, coughing out another cloud of dust that burned at their eyes and lungs. A pair of firefighters emerged, carrying a body out with them.
A male body.
Jeremy blitzed toward the house, but a thick-sleeved firefighter held him back. “It’s not stable. Stay back.”
The whole crowd stopped as a chunk of rubble flew aside, fifteen feet through the air like it was made of foam. Hailey—caked with dust and coughing hard—emerged, stumbling out of the wreckage. One of the firefighters hurried to her side, helping her walk out. She was clearly weak and unsteady, but she’d also just tossed aside more weight than anyone her size could possibly hold up, all to rescue a man she’d never met. Right on cue.
Despite everything they’d just gone through, Jeremy glanced at the cameras, which had caught everything, and felt a grim satisfaction. There’s your fuckin’ sympathy drive, Maddie. There’s your marketing. Hailey Winscombe, a real fuckin’ hero.
As Hailey was helped back to an ambulance, Jeremy and Rika hurried over to join her. “Shit, Hailey,” he started. “The hell were you thinking?”
”Couldn’t—” She paused, coughing through the dust she’d inhaled. “Couldn’t find him.”
”So you went diving through a bombed-out building?” asked Rika, raising her eyebrows.
”Heard… someone in pain. Had to help. Jess… would have wanted me to help.”
”Holy shit, Hales. She’s going to be fine.”
We don’t know that yet… Jeremy glanced at Rika, and got a glare in return. Right. “We got her in the ambulance fast. She’s gonna be fine.”
Hailey shook her head. “All… my fault.”
”You didn’t try to kidnap Ryan in the middle of the night,” Rika pointed out. “It’s those fuckers’ fault.”
”This ain’t on you,” Jeremy agreed. “There’s a whole lot of shit goin’ on here and you ain’t responsible for it.” He sat down next to her on the edge of the ambulance. “We’re gonna find ’em. Don’t you fuckin’ worry.”
”I know who hired those assholes,” added Rika. “Trust me, they aren’t getting away clean.”
Hailey shook her head. “I… those guys. Down on the street.”
Oh shit. “We got ’em. Took all three away for questioning. They’ll be locked up tight, don’t worry.”
Rika glanced at him, and it was his turn to shoot her a glare. Don’t you dare fuckin’ tell her.
She shivered. “So cold…”
Rika climbed in, looking around for a blanket. She got it and tucked it around Hailey’s shoulders, wrapping her up tight. “You good?”
”…Jess… usually keeps us warm. I can’t do Nature magic.” Hailey shook her head again. “Oh god…”
She shivered again, staring at the ground. Rika just sat there, confused, not sure what to do.
Jeremy put an arm around her shoulder. “It’s okay, Hailey. You’re done for tonight.” She leaned into him, wrapped up tight in her blanket.
None of them spoke for several minutes, watching the city buzz with activity around them like someone had kicked over a hive. Hundreds of emergency personnel had flooded the neighborhood. Heavily-armed police squads in full riot gear were kicking down doors and going through every house, while firefighters and rescue workers continued to dig through the rubble of the collapsed buildings.
What the hell happened tonight?
Hailey coughed again, and thankfully, it finally sounded like her throat was clearing up. She glanced up at Jeremy, voice ragged and raw.
”…Where’d they take her?”
Hailey couldn’t sit still. All they told her was that Jessica was still in surgery. The bullets shattered her leg completely, obliterating major sections and causing heavy bleeding— with the high powered guns Viper’s people used and at such close range, it was a miracle it hadn’t done more damage. She paced up and down the waiting room, while Rika snored curled up in the corner. Jeremy was outside fobbing off the media, who’d followed the cars back to the nearest hospital as soon as they realized Hailey and Jeremy were involved.
She kept moving, afraid to let her thoughts settle. She’d already done everything she was supposed to do. Jessica’s parents were on their way, and she’d even gotten them an escort—the best possible escort she could think of, under the circumstances. They were as safe as Hailey could possibly make them.
Cinza was on high alert. With the news that Viper was back to being a real player, and willing to go to such lengths, they needed to be ready for anything. She’d called back everyone she’d sent out, and invited several of the most-trusted newly awakened to take sanctuary in the Greywood. Cinza’s well-fortified, magically protected haven was secure—but given Viper’s knowledge of the area, and the considerable resources backing him in Cornelius Malton, there weren’t many other places any of them could feel truly safe.
Worse, Viper was awakened, unlike Brian and his people. He had access to magic and mundane weapons, and the ability to come up with something new that might blindside them entirely. Hailey knew the golems by now. She knew their limitations, and how to keep them at bay at the very least, and Cinza’s people were working on more targeted spells using the golem Scrap. On top of which, Brian played by the rules. His own, insane rules—but rules: only the awakened were valid targets.
Who knows what rules Viper’s playing by…?
There was no doubt they’d killed more than a few innocent people in the crossfire tonight. Between taking down several houses, the improvised explosives laid into the yards, the gunfight… Hailey shuddered at what the death toll might end up reaching.
”Hales?” Rika murmured, rolling over. “Did I miss anything?”
”No…” Hailey sighed. “Still no word.”
”Shit…” Rika sat up, rubbing her eyes. “Sorry I fell asleep.”
”It’s okay. One of us really should.”
”You, for sure,” said Rika. “You need it way more than I do.”
”I can’t.” Hailey started pacing again. “I can’t miss anything. Not while she’s…”
”Yeah, I know.” Rika yawned and stretched out. “You want anything? Maybe the cafeteria’s still open.”
”It’s three in the morning,” she snapped, frustrated.
Rika shrugged. “Okay, so maybe not.”
Hailey sighed. “I’m sorry.”
”Seriously, Hales. No apologies necessary. I should be the one apologizing to you.“
Rika shook her head. “I keep blaming myself for this shit. Because I made that deal with Viper. Gave his boss everything he could dream of.”
”How’s that related to this?”
”Probably isn’t, but that’s how my fucked up brain works.”
Hailey sighed. She walked over and took a seat, and put an arm around her. “Thank you, Rika.”
”Uhh… for what?”
”Sticking around. Being my friend.”
Rika coughed. “I’m a pretty shitty friend.”
”Nah.” Hailey smiled, though she could barely manage it. “You see anybody else in this waiting room? It’s you and me.”
”Points for attendance, then.” Rika shrugged. “I guess that’s something.”
Hailey nodded. “Hey, speaking of which…”
”Gimme your number. Let’s not just meet up every six months whenever the world’s ending.”
Rika snorted. “Good call.”
The waiting room doors burst open a minute later, just as they were both starting to settle down a little. Jessica’s parents rushed through. Malcolm’s face was streaked with tears, and Beth looked like she was in the middle of an active panic attack. Beth opened her mouth as soon as she saw Hailey, but nothing came out. Hailey wouldn’t have cared if she’d starting screaming for hours.
She hurried to them, burying them both in a hug.
”We don’t know yet,” Hailey whispered.
”Oh god…” Malcolm collapsed into the nearest chair. His wife followed him, clutching his hand. Neither of them spoke, staring dead-eyed at the emergency room doors. Hailey took a deep breath, trying to keep from breaking down at the sight of them. She turned around to greet the last member of the group—the escort she’d called in.
”Everything went okay?” she asked.
”Nothing the whole way here,” he replied. “Nobody even recognized us. Had to convince the front desk staff we were for real.”
She smiled. “Thanks, Wes.”
Weston nodded. “Anything, Hales.” He hugged her tight, and she melted into his arms for a bit, letting him hold her upright. She didn’t want to do it herself anymore. Gravity felt like her worst enemy. “Any news?”
”No…” Hailey buried her face in his shoulder. Horror flooded her veins like purest ice. She felt magical energy rushing in her chest, but it couldn’t do anything for her. “Nothing at all.”
He hugged her tight. “She’ll be okay. She was always the strongest of us.”
Hailey didn’t move, didn’t respond. She couldn’t move. Everything felt so wrong. She couldn’t bear to see anything anymore. She just kept her face there, pressed into Weston’s shirt, standing in the waiting room with the pale buzzing lights above them, while Rika rocked back and forth in the corner trying to keep herself awake, and Jessica’s parents clutched each other’s hands, pale as ghosts. Nobody spoke another word, waiting desperately to hear the answer to the same question they’d all been asking over and over.
Waiting for a doctor to come let them know it was going to be a while and they could just go home, only to get declined, and practically shoved back out the door.
Waiting for the surgery team to return, let them know it was a success and she was in recovery, but that they couldn’t see her for a while.
Waiting for Jessica to wake up and tell them everything would be okay.
Waiting for anything.