Life Thief

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Chapter 8

Oscar felt a chill in the air. The huge animal lifted a foot, stepping towards them, its neck arched with interest as its long head twisted. Oscar and his three colleagues swiftly swung their guns up to sight at the beast. Harrison pulled a grenade from his belt, priming it.

Oscar saw, from the corner of his eye, their ward, Jathan, stumble backwards in terror. Oscar didn’t feel any fear. The animal was still several yards away, although its long head on the flexible neck was riveted on them. Oscar peered at it through the sight of his gun. The thing was huge; terrifying. He should be afraid, but he didn’t feel afraid. He felt angry.

Harrison flung the grenade straight at the dinosaur. The cryolophosaur swung to one side to avoid its arc, but the projectile caught it in the flank, splitting its side in a cloud of flame. The animal bellowed, a howling screech of pain and anger, and it stumbled, but didn’t go down. Instead, its raw, wounded flesh cauterized and its left leg barely holding it up, it charged at Frederic, who was closest and flanked it.

“Damnit, fire!” Harrison shouted, and with a loud CRACK all four guns unloaded at the animal. It was explosive shot, and the cryolophosaur felt it. It let out another roar, and its aggressive lunge faltered, but continued barreling forward. Oscar cursed as he fumbled to reload his rifle. Why wasn’t it going down!?

Frederic dropped his gun and tried to fling himself out of the way as the cryolophosaur hurtled straight at him. The long jaws swung and snapped after him as he tumbled, but the animal was disoriented, and its bite went long even as it knocked into Frederic with its chest, sending him flying.

Another CRACK—Dusty had gotten another shot off. The animal staggered, and its forward charge finally stopped. Harrison, from the other flank, fired at the dinosaur’s head. The huge creature tumbled to the ground now, finally, flailing, and screaming. Oscar swung his gun back up to sight the animal and fired his own shot.

Finally, it stopped moving. Finally. Oscar’s fingers tightened around the stock of his gun. Harrison was already running to Frederic, who lay sprawled across the smooth road where he’d landed. Oscar and Dusty followed him.

“Did it bite you?” Harrison shouted. “Are you hurt?”

“I’m—ow—I’m not hurt,” Frederic said. “Just numb. It didn’t bite me.”

“Thank God,” Harrison muttered, and Dusty crossed himself. “You went flying. Are you sure you aren’t hurt?”

“Pretty sure,” Frederic said. “Just bruised, that’s all.”

Oscar set his gun down, and leaned over to offer a hand up to his friend. His hands were shaking with anger.

Frederic looked up at him with a strained smile. “It’s okay, buddy,” he said. “Chill out. I’m fine…”

“You sure you’re okay?” Oscar said. He made an effort to swallow his fury. “You can take my hand, can’t you?”

Frederic tried to lift his arm; Oscar saw the muscles tense. The arm lifted like Frederic was dragging a lead weight, and spasms of shivers wracked his body. “I, uh,” Frederic said, “don’t seem to be able to move very well again yet.”

“Is something broken? Are you in pain?” Harrison bent over him again, prodding at his limbs.

“No, nothing hurts,” Frederic said. “I hardly feel it.”

Harrison hesitated a moment, then began to move Frederic’s limbs through their range of motion. “Now?” he said, at each juncture. The shivers that were wracking Frederic’s body stopped, then started again.

Frederic shook his head. “Doesn’t hurt,” he said. “I just feel… really cold. Did it get cold up here?”

“No,” Dusty said. He knelt next to the others, carefully eyeing his colleague. “Harrison,” he said. “Look at his skin.”

Harrison undid Frederic’s vest and pulled off one of his gloves, pushing his sleeve up. The skin was pale, and white spots were appearing. Harrison swore and pulled Frederic’s helmet off. Frederic’s lips and ears were blue.

Oscar’s anger suddenly disappeared, freezing into an icy fist of horror in the pit of his stomach. What was happening to his friend?

“What—guys—what’s—“ Frederic tried to move his head, but his eyes wouldn’t focus.

“Oh, God, warm him up—WARM HIM UP.” Dusty tossed his gun to the side and knelt close to Frederic, putting his arms around him. “Build a fire—something!”

Oscar tore his gaze away and ran to the edge of the wide road. Build a fire? It was already warm—if Frederic was inexplicably freezing—how would that help? But it gave him something to do. He tore sticks from trees, picked up whatever branches he could find on the ground. With the jungle growing so thick and close, he didn’t have to go far. As he ran back with his armload of wood, he heard Harrison and Dusty shouting.

“Cut that animal open—put him inside! Its body heat will—“ Harrison was gesturing to the dead cryolophosaur.

“NO!” Dusty said. “It has a reverse cryogenesis; even if its dead, it might still take his heat!”

“How is that even possible?” Harrison screamed. “It’s a dead animal! It has residual heat! Do you want this man to die!?”

Oscar stopped in mid-step, his arms full of wood, as he turned to look at the giant reptilian form that lay sprawled on the road.

“I’m telling you it doesn’t have any heat!” Dusty shouted back.

“Guys, please stop fighting—“ Frederic’s protest was weak. “If I have to die here—“

“You’re not dying here, Frederic,” Oscar growled, and he dumped his load of wood on top of the dead animal. He dropped to one knee next to it, tugging loose his fire starter from his belt.

Jathan had stumbled back up. “I have a lighter—“

“What makes you think I don’t have a lighter?” Oscar roared at him. He ripped a length of detonating cord from his belt and tossed it around the corpse. A splash of fire-starter, and he lit a match and jumped to his feet. Backing away several paces, he flung the match at the dead animal.

The detonating cord exploded, and the dinosaur’s corpse, melting and twisting in the sudden heat and flames, thrashed like it still lived, its neck curving backwards, the long teeth bared in the blistering jaw in a hideous grin.

Dusty stood straight up, his jaw dropping. “My God,” he said. “Look at it.”

The body writhed, the grinning skull revealed as the burning flesh peeled back. The scorching flames leapt higher, and began to spark. The warm air felt suddenly chill—far too chill. Oscar was suddenly aware of being cold. In his helmet, coat, and armor, in the jungle. Cold.

“Stop looking at it,” Frederic pleaded, “guys…”

Dusty turned back around. “Jesus,” he said. “Oh, sweet Jesus.”

“Don’t just stand there! Move!” Harrison shouted. “Oscar, pick up your gun! Cover us! Jathan, move! Dusty, help me here!” He bent low to heft Frederic, and Dusty scrambled to help him, leaving his gun lying forgotten on the road. Oscar snatched it up as they all fled, as quickly as they could, from the burning dinosaur. The road continued to steep downward in elevation, and Oscar realized they were not heading the way they had come, but continuing down out of the mountains and towards the ruins.

Dusty and Harrison hobbled close to one another, holding Frederic as tight to them as they could, trying to keep him from getting any colder. Oscar trailed with the gun, behind Jathan, who was walking with his head down and his shoulders hunched. Shouts sounded from behind them, and Oscar spun around, bringing his gun up.

But it was Omer and Edward, shouting, running towards them. Edward waved his arms.

“What took you so long?” Oscar roared.

“We had a problem of our own to deal with,” Omer growled. The two of them slowed, reaching the group. “Nice work back there—though that dinosaur seems awfully reluctant to burn.”

“Let’s not even talk about that,” Oscar snapped. “Frederic’s about to die.”

“Then why are you moving him?” Omer cried.

“Because of the dinosaur—there’s no time to explain!” Oscar snarled.

“We’ve got to put him down,” Harrison called from up ahead. “He won’t warm up like this.” He jerked his head at Oscar. “Off the road—quick. Build a real fire this time. You—“ he jerked his head at Jathan. “Help him. And you two—cover us.”

Oscar tossed Frederic’s gun down at Omer’s feet, and, with the other men, plunged off the road into the woods. Harrison and Dusty settled Frederic between them, ripping down palm branches to build a shield to maximize their body heat and stuffing moss into Frederic’s clothes for extra insulation.

Oscar set his gun down and turned away, stomping into the woods. Jathan scrambled after him, nearly as pale as Frederic. But he managed to stay upright on his wobbling legs, stoically holding on to every branch and stick that Oscar put—not gently—into his arms.

When they came back, a space had been cleared to build a fire, and they had stripped Frederic down of his metal-sewn gear and wrapped him in every emergency heat-reflecting blanket they had. His skin was blue and puffy, and Oscar felt that icy knot turn sick in his stomach. Omer and Edward stood at the perimeter, weapons at the ready, silent and cold.

But right now everything was cold. Jathan put the wood down, scrambling to organize it into a fire. Oscar resisted the urge to shove him out of the way, and instead just crouched down to help. Fire starter. Another match. The flames flared up—normal, warming flames. Although, Oscar sat crouched next to them for several seconds, just to make sure.

“Get him something hot to drink,” Harrison said. Someone’s gloved hand thrust a canteen under the flames. Oscar was hardly paying attention anymore. Jathan knelt on the other side of the fire, his head down, his hands buried in his hair.

“He’s dying,” Dusty said. His voice sounded far away. “He’s going to die. I think he’s warming up, Harrison… but his extremities are turning black, and he’s hardly breathing…”

Someone took the canteen back out of the fire. “He’s definitely warming up. Give him some more.” That was Harrison’s voice.

“Oh, God, we’re losing him… we’re losing him… Jesus.” Dusty’s voice was quiet, helpless. “Can you—Frederic? Frederic…”

Oscar couldn’t tear his eyes away from the flames. Across from him, Jathan hadn’t moved. Frederic was dying. How could he be dying? He didn’t have a mark on him. It didn’t make sense. Oscar wanted to get up, to tear himself away from the fire, to do something, to say goodbye… but he couldn’t move. He tried to work his tongue. “How?” was all he managed, his voice a harsh rasp.

“Oh, Jesus, Frederic…” Dusty’s concerned singsong suddenly made Oscar want to hit him. Hard.

“Be quiet, Dusty.” Harrison’s voice was flat. “We can’t do anything more for him.”

Something stung Oscar’s eyes. They blurred. He felt something hot and wet on his cheeks, and swiped at it. Tears. No. Frederic was going to die. He was going to die. Just like Dennis, Brenton, and Corey had died. Alone. Desperately.

Oscar finally tore himself from the fire and turned to his friend. Harrison and Dusty had him wrapped tight between them, and Oscar could see the hint of a warm flush beginning to return to Frederic’s face. But it was too late. Dusty had the fingers of one hand against the side of his neck. “Keep going, Frederic,” he whispered. “Keep going… oh, no.”

“Damnit, Dusty, move!” Harrison yelled, and all of a sudden everything was a rush, and they had Frederic flat on the ground, and Harrison was above him, arms straight, pumping his chest. Oscar heard Frederic’s ribs snap. The icy pit in his stomach began to claw his insides, and he jerked his gaze back to the fire.

Jathan hadn’t moved; and his arms were over his head now, as Harrison and Dusty shouted at each other, shouted at Frederic. Harrison’s colorful swearing and Dusty’s endless whiny pleas formed a terrifying harmony to the thuds of their attempts to resuscitate him.

Oscar glanced toward the perimeter. Omer and Edward still stood there, stock still. Edward’s shoulders were shaking. Time seemed to stretch on forever—Oscar found himself dully wondering why the fire was so low. He needed to get some more wood.

“It’s no use,” Harrison said, exhaustion shaking his voice. “His body temperature is back to normal, but I can’t get his heart going. We’ve got no—“

“No electricity,” Oscar growled, turning again to glare at them. “No cardiomimic devices. Nothing. Monsters that can do this, and we have NOTHING left.” Harrison stared back at him, his expression flat. Dusty had tears running down his face.

Further down the road, the loud shriek of a raptor echoed through the jungle.

“That’s enough, Oscar,” Omer’s voice was resigned. “Is he gone, Harrison?”

“He’s gone,” Harrison said.

Jathan lifted his head. His eyes were wet, too. “I’m so sorry,” he stuttered, “this is awful—“

“Shut up.” Oscar said. “We’ve got work to do.” His fingers twitched, and, finally, he replaced his fire starter in his belt. Then he remembered the box. That smooth box from the crashed bike that he had picked up. Relieved that he had something to focus his mind on, Oscar stood, unzipping his pack and pulling it out.

Omer peered over at him from the perimeter. “What’s that?” he asked.

“This was on our man’s bike,” Oscar said. “It looked suspicious, so I took it along.”

“What are we going to do with Frederic?” Dusty called.

“Leave him there. We'll get him on the way back. If we make it back,” Omer said.

“Leave him…”

“If he’s dead, he won’t care. Break it up—now!”

Harrison and Dusty exchanged glances, and Dusty bent down, pulling the blankets from Frederic and re-dressing him in his uniform and armor. Harrison pulled out his hatchet and started cutting branches to build a makeshift bier.

Oscar turned his back on their efforts, and kicked dirt over the fire. Jathan stood up to help, and once the fire was out, went over to Dusty and Harrison. Harrison slapped the knife into his hand and gestured for him to start cutting branches. Haltingly, Jathan did so. Harrison knelt down and pulled a length of cord from his pack to start lashing the palm leaves and branches together.

Oscar stood with the box in his hands. It was smooth, precision equipment, fastened securely with a series of tiny latches. Prodding around a bit, he figured out how to release them. He flipped the lid open, and peered inside. He swore. “Omer,” he said. “This is Revonet lab equipment. Synthesizers. And something else.” Reaching into the box, he dug out a small, dark glass bottle. The label on it was printed with a few numerical codes, but there were no words to describe what it might be.

“What is that?” Still holding his gun, Omer tramped over and peered at the bottle as Oscar held it up.

“I don’t know,” Oscar said. “I’m not familiar with Revonet serial coding. There’s three of them in here. Some finished substance, I imagine.”

“Something he’s using on his animals, no doubt,” Omer said. He eyed the small bottle. “Wonder if there’s a way to test it.”

“I’m not getting close enough to any animals to give injections, if that’s what you’re asking,” Oscar said.

“Actually,” Omer said, “there’s a herd of kentrosaurs that live up in the Pious Valley. By the monastery. I’m sure they wouldn’t mind if we borrowed one for an experiment.”

“Can we split the team?” Oscar lowered his voice.

“I don’t see why not,” Omer said. “Glenn sent extra men on this squad anyway.”

“We’re down one, don’t forget.” Oscar’s voice was bitter.

“Down one, with a liability.” Omer jerked his head towards Jathan, who was helping Dusty dig. “Tell you what. Tell those guys to knock it off. You take Jathan, Edward, and Frederic, and that box of yours, and you head to the monastery. This is important stuff, and might give us some information that will help us find this creep.”

“The rest of you—you’ll be all right?” Oscar was nearly biting his words out.

Omer shrugged. “All in a day’s work. Four would be better, but three is all we need. We won’t have a cover squad, but honestly, I don’t think cover squads are that useful out here. Too easy to get detained.”

“What held you and Edward up?” Oscar asked.

“Raptor ambush,” Omer said. “What else? Those things are like giant, lethal rats.”

“Could it have been our man?”

Omer shrugged. “I doubt it. You’re on his trail, aren’t you? These woods are crawling with raptors anyway.”

“The farther we follow his trail—which, by the way, is just a raptor trail; we’re trailing dinosaurs, we haven’t seen one mark of a human being—the more I suspect he’s not alive anymore. Whatever Dusty says, I’m willing to bet his dinosaurs ate him,” Oscar said.

“Serves him right if they did,” Omer said. “We’ll see what we can find. We’ll rendezvous with you at the monastery by tonight. If we don’t show up, get back to the Undermine and report.”

“By tonight? It’s already almost three o’ clock.”

“What I’m going to do,” Omer said, “is get as close as we can and see if our man lights a fire when it gets dark.”

“All right.” Oscar nodded wearily. “If you get in trouble, though, send up a flare. We should have done that when we saw that thing that killed Frederic.”

“What good would that would have done? There’s no one close enough to respond. Besides, we don’t know what killed Frederic,” Omer said. “He didn’t have any wounds.”

“You never know if someone might be around. And, the thing killed him.”

“Fine, if you say so,” Omer said. “Anyway, don’t worry. We’ll send up flares.” He turned and hollered at the other men. “Change of plans. Prep him for immediate transport. Oscar, Edward, and Jathan are going to take him to the Pious Valley.”

“What?” Harrison straightened up, scowling. “And we’re going to keep trailing our man?”

“Yes,” Omer said. “We won’t go that far. We’ll get a little more headway, and when night falls, we’ll look for lights.”

“We don’t want to be out here, unsecured, at night,” Dusty said. “It’s a lot more dangerous!”

“Yes, it is,” Omer said. “So we’ll be careful. But this has to be done. You want some renegade running around using dinosaurs to kill people?”

“He will kill US!” Dusty protested.

“That’s a chance we’re going to have to take,” Omer snapped. “Nobody forced you to work for Containment Authority. Someone’s got to risk their life so that other people can live. How many people died getting what remained of humanity out of the cities?”

Oscar shook his head. He’d used the same argument with his mother. It had seemed noble then. It felt cold and bitter now. He carefully slid the bottle back into the secure confines of the box, and re-latched it. He slipped it back into his pack and turned to face his colleagues, in time to see relief and fury mixing together on Dusty’s distraught face.

“He died out here—like a dog!” Dusty shouted. “Like a dog! No man should die this way!”

“Shut your mouth, Dusty!” Harrison growled, from where he bent over securing the corpse to the gurney to carry it. “You want to die out here, too?”

“Look,” Omer said. “We did the best we could. How could we know he’d die from freak hypothermia? We didn’t plan for reverse cryogenesis, as you call it. You said yourself nobody sees those things this far up. There’s a reason why we don’t go down there. Now you’ve all seen that reason with your own eyes. Maybe it’ll turn into a reason why we don’t cross off our own mountain. Or even go aboveground. Just because the Undermine is full of bored dandies who want some adventure, doesn’t mean these abominations of nature are going to cooperate.” He shot a glare at Jathan, who opened his mouth and then closed it again.

“I want to go to the Valley, too,” Dusty said.

“You don’t believe how heartily I wish I could send you,” Omer growled. “But you’re not going. I need you to track our man.”

“I am not tracking our man,” Dusty said. “I am tracking his dinosaurs. And I cannot track anything on this road. Raptors come in and out of the woods everywhere along it. There is nothing more for me to track.”

“Maybe not now,” Omer said, “but that doesn’t mean we won’t need you later.”

“Gurney’s finished. Ready to go,” Harrison said, his voice muffled from behind Dusty.

“Good. Oscar, Jathan. Take him and go. Edward, you cover them.”

Oscar hesitated, glancing at Edward. Only one man to cover. And with his hands full carrying a dead man, he wouldn’t be able to get to his weapons quickly enough if they were attacked.

Omer turned and stared at him. “You worried? Set off your flare if you’re worried. See if those monks scurry down here to help you. Leave Frederic here if you really want to, but get going.”

Oscar put a hand on the box in his pack, and nodded. “Never mind. We’ll take him. We’ll be fine.” He and Jathan walked over hefted up the gurney between them. “Let’s go.”

“Yes, you’ll be fine.” Dusty shook his head with resignation. “You have a better chance of making it out of here alive than we do.”

~*~*~

It was really incredible how quietly Vitaeraptor could creep through the trees. Even with a full load—his hapless rider—Sparky curled his clawed feet high in long strides, placing each step with precision and intention. Despite his size he made almost no noise, and Nova and Streamline, silently following suit, were hardly discernible in the trees.

Quincy had kept quiet, waiting for an opportunity of some kind. The raptors had turned back into the foothills, moving off of the road to the ruins, as if they sensed something—a threat, or prey, it was hard to tell. Quincy ached all over, and his legs and arms were spasming with the tension of being locked in the same position. He really wished he could just lay down. Or build a fire. Or both.

The raptors picked up speed, and Quincy felt the air around him begin to warm. They were heading downward. There was nothing downward except the river, and the ruins. Far off through the trees, he heard the trickle of water. Though lately many of the riverbeds higher up in elevation near the Undermine had been dry, the huge confluence of the Bitterroot River was still flowing, fed by other streams.

Quincy recognized this area—he had been here before. He had gotten his animals here, when they were not even out of the egg. He had gotten his lab equipment farther to the northeast. Quincy raised his eyebrows. Perhaps that explained it. The raptors were heading home.

The sky opened up above them. The trees began to scatter sparsely around the ruins of electric rails, filling stations, manufacturing plants, and skylines. Rows of small, space-efficient cottages lined dark, impermeable streets.

A spatter of what sounded like shrill bird calls split the air, and across the darkening sky, a roiling flock of huge numbers billowed out of the windows of an overgrown manufacturing lab. The three raptors cocked their heads with interest at the sight, but continued their fast trot down towards the throughway, unconcerned.

The long-abandoned and overgrown streets looked eerie as the sun sank lower in the sky. Swift shadows crossed over the throughways, in and out of the buildings. Raptors. Quincy felt a chill that wasn’t in the air. Last time he had been down here, months and months ago, he had been dressed in tougher stuff than the Transgenic Authority wore, and he had had weapons—mostly dart-firing guns—neurotoxins and etorphine. Now he had nothing, and for the amount of protective gear he had on, he felt he might as well be naked. His animals had protected him from a lone raptor. But how would they defend him from a whole pack? And—would they? Their behavior thus far had seemed to show incredibly alarming motives.

Hoots and shrieks echoed as if in inquiry, and Sparky and Nova returned them with aggressive howls of their own. Quincy tried to think. It was highly possible that he would not survive the night. He might not even survive the next few minutes. His animals passed the plant, and drew abreast of the first of the line of cottages.

“All right, Sparky,” Quincy said, lowering his voice to a threatening drawl. He leaned down close to the animal, reaching forward to grab the halter part of the harness, around the head. “Wherever you’re taking me, it’s going to be somewhere I’ve got a chance to hole up. You got it?” Sparky stopped in mid-pace, turning his head in response to the tug, and snarled.

“Shut up,” Quincy said. “I’m not scared of you. You can kill me anytime, but until you’re ready to do that, I’m not gonna take any more of this from you.” Nova and Streamline rushed to flank Sparky, shrieking and snarling.

Out of the corner of his eye, Quincy saw shadows darting up, along the walls, climbing up the electric rails and the pipe casings. Surrounding them.

“Nice and easy, now,” he murmured. Then, gritting his teeth, he swung himself off the raptor. Sparky pivoted with his motion, trying to keep him in place, but Quincy had flung himself hard enough that his momentum carried him tumbling off. Searing pain shot up his arm where he tenaciously clung to the raptor’s halter. A second passed by as if frozen—and then Quincy let go.

His ankle gave out. He heard the shrieks and snarls of raptors all around him as he tumbled to the ground. Twisting around, he crawled towards the nearest cottage, expecting any moment to feel the weight of claws on his back, and the hot, wet, stinking jaws of a raptor around the back of his neck. The screams and hoots and snarls of the animals echoed all around him, and he heard them darting back and forth, how many he couldn’t tell, but the claws, the teeth, they never came. Quincy kept crawling. His gloved hand hit the indent of the door, and he scrabbled at it. It was open a few inches; various plants and vines growing in had loosened the door over the years.

A huge clawed foot crossed his vision, and suddenly raptor feet were all around him, deftly avoiding stepping on him. He recognized the feather patterns of his raptors. They were still screaming and hooting at the surrounding pack. More than anything, Quincy wished for his dart guns. He would put them all down in moments.

Then he was inside, and he kicked the door shut with his uninjured foot. It wouldn’t quite close all the way; some evening light filtered in through the gaps in the door and also in the overgrown windows. Groaning, Quincy pulled himself up to a sitting position.

The screams outside were getting louder, and a horrific thud shook the house, as if something large had been thrown bodily against it. The door swung partially open again, catching on some roots. Quincy yanked free several vines and other plant growth that had crept across the floor over the years and died, making a thick natural carpet. After he had cleared a large space and made a pile of the vegetation, he pulled his lighter from his belt, fumbling to spark it. He wasn’t worried about the house. These houses in the ruins didn’t burn, and neither did anything in them. Not even a little bit.

The viney leaves caught fire, and the conflagration quickly spread along them. Once the light of the fire sprang up to illuminate the house, Quincy dragged himself up to continue clearing the plants away from the fire. The house wouldn’t burn, but the plants would, and so would he, if he were caught in it. Already the smoke was stinging his eyes, and he coughed. He needed to open a window, for the smoke. Just a few steps away…

In the flurry of his fire concerns, Quincy ignored both the painful protests of his ankle, and the violent sounds from outside. When he finally sank back down, sweating from the heat of his now fairly contained fire, he realized that he didn’t hear the dinosaurs anymore, and that there wasn’t any light coming in through the crack in the door. The sweat cooled on his brow, and he felt a sudden chill, as if it crept in through that pitch dark opening.

The animals were gone—run off? Killed? Who knew? He might not live to see the morning. But he felt better, in a way, being holed up with no escape, rather than clinging to the back of a dangerous and unpredictable beast. You never know, he thought to himself, someone might see the light, or the smoke. But Quincy was afraid he was kidding himself. No one came down to the ruins. Ever. Not for any reason. Yes, he had come here, a couple of years ago. But he had never come back.

The silence seemed almost louder than the crackling fire. Quincy leaned back against a long counter underneath the window he had opened. He didn’t have any proper fuel—the plant growth in here would be burned up within an hour. He could only hope that someone saw the smoke. Then he would wait here to be found, or to die.

Die. He had already thought that was his fate, last night. It seemed as if he had only put off the inevitable.

He heard the shrill bird cries again, and his brow furrowed. That was odd. Birds usually put to roost long before darkness fell, and stayed silent at night.

A scraping, fluttering sound came from the open window. Quincy twisted to look from where he sat, his heart hammering. Long-tailed, dark in the flickering firelight, three four-winged creatures lit down upon the ledge of the window. They folded their feathered wings, their black, beady eyes set deep in scaly, pointed snouts, peering at him. One of them hopped on its winged hind legs down from the window, into the house, landing on the counter sill.

Quincy didn’t move a muscle. Perhaps the inevitable was coming even more quickly than he had thought.

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