“Time to head back?” Al asked, wiping some moisture from the bridge of his nose.
“Don’t tell me a bit of rain is scaring you off” Evan demanded with a light hearted smirk, emphasizing by jumping into the nearest puddle and causing an even larger wet mark to appear on Al’s shirt.
It was the first time we’d spent any real time with him, making me feel slightly bad after nearly six months on the road by now, but we’d quickly come to realize why Fiona and Chase had taken on the responsibility of him. He was an easy going kid, who only argued with us in a light joking tone, and what seemed like a forever smile on his broad face keeping us both going along behind him in the same attitude. He also came along with a never ending flow of commentary, having randomly spat out any number of fun fact whenever they popped into his mind, no matter how seemingly random, such as: “Did you know that hummingbirds have such a high metabolism, they’re always hours away from starving to death.” I wasn’t sure why he knew that, maybe he had a buddy back at the Founders who turned into one, but it was interesting enough none the less neither of us made an attempt to stop him.
As the rain did continue to pour down on us from above with more and more speed, I was beginning to agree with Al that it would be best we head back, or at least get the car to continue our search, when as one we all froze and sensed him.
My eyes narrowed as I spied through the thick sheet of water, trying to understand where the sense was coming from. We weren’t in any neighborhood anymore, but instead were in the middle of a forest path trying to cut through into the next set of houses. The only information on our search this time was that a male shapeshifter of an armadillo species lived in the lower Washington area, so specific.
We’d already been on the lookout for him for two days now, this was the last residential area we had to check before we chalked it up as misfiled information and moved on. Where we seemed to have come across him was odd though, as according to Evan armadillos ate mostly grubs and had extremely poor eyesight, having led us to guess that he most likely subsisted on actual human food rather than forging on his own, this area in particular would be a terrible place to try as the weather would be preventing his tracking ability through his nose.
Maybe we’d just come across someone other than our target, either way when Al thought he’d narrowed in which direction our new person was, we followed without question.
After bushwhacking through many overgrown trees and fallen logs, we caught sight of him.
Al began cursing in Spanish a few things I would not be translating with Evan around as we hurried forward, only for the two of us to come to stops when we realized what we were seeing.
The Pangolin looked mostly like an armadillo, except with a much larger tail where the plates on its back continued down to cover that as well. It was curled up in a tight little ball, something that was probably involuntary but necessary as the cage he was in was hardly big enough for a rat, and he was nearly triple that size.
Evan had already got down on his knees and was reaching forward to undue the complicated lock housing it in place, when his hand shivered and he automatically retraced, eyeing the silver that looked like it was shining faintly even in the rain. Then he ground his teeth together and pushed past the discomfort it would cause his skin to be in contact with that particular metal and made quick work of opening the cage.
The moment the latch was set loose, the Shifter unfurled himself for the span of time it took him to launch into Evan’s arms, and then he curled right back up as tight as could go.
Evan was frowning down in concern, his eyes glancing in every direction, he was probably trying to detect any Hunters around just like us, then he looked back down and asked “What happened?”
The Pangolin gave an agitated nip at Evan’s shirt, and Al said “oh” in response. He quickly swung the backpack off of his shoulders and dug around until he found a hoodie he carried with him that was several sizes too large. We had no idea of the build of the person we were searching for, but hopefully it was big enough to give him enough decency he’d change back.
It was bright red with some college initials stamped into it in white, so it stuck out like a sore thumb in this sea of green around us. Al hadn’t even managed to give it a toss over to Evan though when the three of us tensed at the sound of many feet approaching.
I didn’t even hesitate, at Evan’s side faster than I could finish blinking, holding tight to his upper arm and hissing in his ear “run.”
He didn’t need to be told twice, so with the Pangolin still held tightly to his chest, we went dodging into the nearby trees with him in between us.
We ducked around so many trees that I lost count of how many times they hit me on the back swing. The green foliage started blurring together until I felt like I was running through a funhouse of mirrors, without the fun part. Neither of us considered shifting, it was too dangerous for them to know we were predators right off the bat when we had even a glimmer of a chance of outrunning them. I was under the impression that Evan was still so new he couldn’t have pulled it off fast enough to make a difference.
Guns never fired behind us, and by the time we reached the edge of the forest and burst out onto nondescript road, the sounds of pursuit had long faded. Still, none of us felt compelled to slow down as we jogged across the road, but instead began trailing the road in the ferns looking for a trail marker to indicate how far out of the way we were.
When we did see the exit indicating that we’d run all the way out of town, Al finally stopped and doubled over, though quickly tipped his head back and let the rain fall onto his face with relief now. I wasn’t doing much better, but Evan was causing me the most concern. His breathing was the most ragged, and he didn’t seem to be regaining any of his breath back as he leaned against a tree for support.
“Evan-” I began cautiously as I approached, but Al recovered first and marched past me, placing a calming hand on his shoulder and saying “it’s alright, they’re gone. We’ll clear out of here in just a second.”
Then he held his hand out, and Evan looked down in surprise like he’d forgotten he was holding our supposed victim.
Evan handed him over with a weary look on his face, which was deserved as Al’s seemed to have closed off. I wasn’t too surprised though when Al’s gentle hands went from holding the pseudo animal, to wrapping one hand tightly around his throat.
“Change back you useless piece of shit so I can strangle you properly!”
I watched stone faced as Al kept a tight fist around the shifters neck, who was now struggling desperately but despite his claws flailing wild, making no progress to free himself.
“Al!” Evan spluttered, trying to stumble forward and help, but Al took a few more steps back into the trees, his face beyond furious as he kept shouting, “you set us up! I’ve heard of your kind, you damn near got us killed or worse!”
I was expecting him to breathe fire any moment, I certainly wasn’t going to step in and stop him if he did slam this thing head first into the ground like his body was suggesting he’d do at any moment, but then Evan got right in his face and snapped “stop it! Give him a chance will you!”
Al’s upper lip curled in disgust, but he released his hold and the mammal fell to the floor, hard. Before he could even begin to scuttle away, Al’s foot lashed out and kicked him on his back, his other hand moving with a bright glint, and suddenly the shifter was changing back into human form with a cry of pain.
The silver knife we both carried was my idea, and though I’d never thought it would be used for something like this, I still couldn’t bring myself to regret the decision.
The transforming man was still trying to crawl away even as his human features appeared. He was in his mid-fifties, with light blonde hair and terrified blue eyes. His face was weather beaten and several shades too red for his pale coloring, but you could at least put both shaking limbs down to the fact that one of them was trying to stem a flow of blood from his naval.
Al still had the hoodie grasped in his hand this whole time, and he threw it down onto his private area before planting his foot on his chest and growling with more force than even his wolf could, “give me one good reason why I shouldn’t slit your throat for what you tried to do to us!”
Evan had both hands place on his knife arm, tugging insistently even as Al kept trying to shake him off. The stranger below them began sobbing, though still keeping one hand on his wound as the other went to cover his face, tears leaking out of his eyes and snot beginning to misconfigure the words “pl-please. I have four kids, I, I was just doing what I was told! It was nothing personal, I-”
“How many people have you gotten killed with your filthy trick,” Al howled, his heel digging deeper into the diaphragm, causing him to wheeze off. “How many kids have gone up trying to help you and-”
“Al” Evan cut in desperately. Al’s voice strangled off, though from over emotion or finally heeding the warning I wasn’t sure. Either way Evan finally got his piece in, turning his back on us and kneeling down in front of him by saying, “look, I’m not going to let him hurt you, alright? He’s ticked, and so am I, but there’s a way I can help you get out of this. What’s your name?”
He let out a terrible noise, shaking his head furiously and managing to get more wet leaves stuck to his hair as he waved his wedding ring under Evan’s nose. “Do what you want to me, fine, but please if they catch up to you tell them I didn’t say anything! They might leave my family alone!”
It was by far one of the saddest things I’d seen in a month, and some of my own anger started seeping out of me as he lay there blubbering on the ground. There was nothing sadder than a full grown man begging for his family’s life while naked and bleeding in the rain. A car passed on the highway behind us, and though they didn’t stop, I still came to realize how exposed we were down here only just out of sight.
Al didn’t seem in much of a mood to calm down though, still breathing too hard though no longer from running. “Forget it Evan, there’s no help for someone who betrays us to the Hunters like that.”
Evan whirled on him, and though he was half Al’s height, he still somehow managed to strike a rather intimidating scowl as he snapped, “I’m not saying what he did was right, but sometimes people make mistakes alright! Don’t condemn him and his innocent family to death because of it!”
He pushed Al then, hard enough to make him stumble back off so that the man below could finally breathe at an almost normal pace again. Then Evan turned back unconcerned to continue in an almost calm voice, “look you’re not the first person in the world this has happened to. Did they threaten to protect your family if you did this?”
The guy hesitated, his pupils still too wide as he watched Al, and the silver gleam still in his hand, before turning back to Evan and slowly nodding.
Evan nodded like this didn’t surprise him as he continued, “okay, think about this. That won’t last forever, eventually they’ll turn on you, you must know that. We’re not turning ourselves in, which means that you could be blamed for our escape.”
The man let out a sob, and seemed to lose all life as his head flopped back and his hand stopped pressing into his wound. Evan sighed, shaking his head sadly as he continued, “but I promise, you tell me your name, and I can get you help.”
“No one can help me,” he croaked, looking at the canopy above like he expected an angel to appear any second. “I’ve failed them.”
His shaking had almost stopped, the blood seeping out of his wound was trickling down to match the red of the hoodie, but still mostly being washed away by the downpour. Kneeling over him like he was, the rain making him looked like he was blurring around the edges, Evan looked older then he should have as he whispered, “doesn’t mean you can’t still help them. Look, just tell me your name, I know someone who was once in the exact same situation as you. She got out, so can you.”
His head rolled towards Evan, his eyes vacant as he murmured, “Robert Zena.”
“Okay Mr. Zena,” Evan nodded slowly and began getting back to his feet like he was afraid any fast movements would startle him away. “I’m going to make a phone call, and I’m promising you now someone will be here before you know it to help-”
“Zoey Zena,” he gasped, suddenly sitting upright, his hand snagging onto Evan’s pants leg with suddenly white knuckles. “You tell whoever this rescue party is to get my wife and kids out of here, I’ll be long dead by then but hopefully I can buy them some time.”
He lunged to his feet then, the bloodstained hoodie falling to the ground, but he was already growing scales again, and before any of us could stop him this time, he used up the energy he’d regained and disappeared back the way we’d come.
“Mr. Zena, Robert wait-” Evan tried to go after him, but then Al caught his shoulder again.
“Let it go kid, he deserves what he’s giving himself.”
Evan tore his shoulder away, glaring at him with a look I wouldn’t have believed seconds ago could be on such a kind hearted face. “People make mistakes you know! He’s not the only damn person in the world who’s done this, and he’s not the last!”
“Evan,” I tried, but he turned on me just as fast, jabbing a finger at me, “you’re no better, just standing back there with this blank look on your face like you were pretending to be a tree! You two don’t get to decide who does and doesn’t die!”
We stood there, breathless for watching him for several more beats while he glared at us. I don’t know what he was expecting. For us to apologize? We weren’t. I’d still back up Al in a heartbeat if he turned to me and decided to hunt down that critter for even the thought that he hadn’t denied of who he’d lured into that trap of his.
“I need to make a phone call,” Evan snapped when it was clear nothing more was going to be said, storming off back to the road.