I felt Dex grab my arm and we were running again, anywhere.
“You really like me going shirtless, don’t you?” he panted, keeping his grip steady on my forearm, pulling me along with him.
“Is that your way of saying thank you?” I yelled.
I heard him snort. I took that as a yes.
I didn’t want to look behind us. I knew the time I bought us was brief and all too willing to come to an end. We just had to keep moving, even though we were now heading away from the lights of the Lancaster’s house.
After a few yards though, we came to a fence that abruptly came up at us in the charcoal haze of night.
“The perimeter fence,” Dex said as he quickly scaled it.
I darted underneath the planks, feeling the upper one take a good chunk out of my back. Didn’t matter. We had officially made onto the property.
And just in time, too. I heard a bone-chilling whiney from behind us and the galloping earth being shredded.
We lumbered across the land, it was flatter and more groomed here, making things a bit easier. The house lights dipped behind something else, I guess it was the barn. We must have been coming across near where the worker’s cabin was. Even though it was Shan’s turf, it was still closer than the main house.
I didn’t want to say anything aloud to Dex but he seemed to pick up on it anyway. He subtly changed direction and the outline of the low rancher came into view against the sky. There was probably a phone in there, and at least the door had locks. Yes, it was Shan’s place and he probably knew it better than the back of his hand but it was still the closest point of refuge.
We were about ten yards away when a black figure moved in front of us, too fast for us to comprehend. Dex ran straight into it and was knocked back, as was I. I almost bit the dust but Dex’s crazy strong grip on my arm kept me on my feet. Someone screamed. I’m not sure if it was me.
“Whoa now,” a deep voice said.
I shone the flashlight up in the voice’s direction. Sure enough, the tall, stoic figure of Bird came into view. He looked a bit worse for wear, but it was him.
I’ve never felt more relieved.
“Bird!” I exclaimed and threw my arms around him. He felt solid, real.
He chuckled softly. “I’m sure glad to see you two.”
Dex slapped him on the shoulder. “The feeling is mutual. Except I think a mutant horse is coming after us right now so we should probably run for the hills.”
Bird nodded curtly and looked behind us into the dark.
“I thought as much. Follow me.”
And at that he was off and running into the wilderness. Away from the Lancasters, away from the ranch house and barns. There was a tiny, nagging feeling in the back of my head that was telling me Bird could have been compromised but I couldn’t do anything about it except just keep running after him. But still, the thought of whether skinwalkers could become other people, as well as animals, did cross my mind.
We ran towards a rocky outcrop and Bird started scaling it with ease. Dex followed him and reached for my hand. Once again I ignored him and found my own way up, climbing from rock to rock until I pulled myself onto a gravely ledge that jutted out from a taller cliff face, maybe eight feet wide and ten feet off the ground.
I got to my knees and Dex hoisted me up the rest of the way. I strained to catch my breath. My heart and lungs were working in overdrive and I was still feeling the dizzy effects of the tea.
While I caught my breath and warily watched the ground below us for any malevolent animals, Dex let things fly into Bird.
“It’s good to see you man, but what the fuck happened out there? You just fucking disappeared.”
Bird took it in stride. “I know. So did you. I went inside to use the washroom. I know I shouldn’t have but I was only going to be gone a minute. I was standing over the toilet, heard the door open, turned around and was hit on the head. I woke up later, I don’t know how much later but it was already starting to get dark. I was locked in the bathroom and couldn’t get out.”
It made sense. Yet everything had me extra suspicious.
“How did you get out?” I asked.
“I had to break Rudy’s window. Wrapped the towel around my hand and out it went. Barely squeezed through but I made it. You were gone, Rudy was gone, the tent was destroyed…”
“And Boy Boy was going nuts?” Dex interjected.
“Boy Boy was nowhere to be found. I saw my truck was gone, I had hoped you took it. I had to take Rudy’s all the way back here.”
“How long have you been here for?” Dex questioned.
“Not long, five minutes. I parked Rudy’s car far, far away and came the rest of the way on foot.”
“Why?” I asked.
“I’m not stupid. From the moment I woke up on that bathroom floor I knew exactly what happened.”
“Well, if you don’t mind, can you please fill us in?” I asked.
“I don’t know how much time we have,” Dex said to me.
Bird walked forward and put his hands on both of our shoulders. “Don’t worry. We have enough time. It will take Shan some time to get used to his new body.”
“What?” I replied, dumbfounded.
“When a skinwalker changes into an animal, there is an adjustment period. He has to learn what it’s like to be that animal. He was a horse to cover quick distances. He’ll probably be a bird next to get up here after us. Or perhaps he’ll go find Sarah first for support. But it’ll take him a little bit to learn how to operate in this new form.”
“So you know its Sarah and Shan…,” Dex mused, bitterly.
Bird sighed, “Yes. I know. Now. And I should have known then. I just didn’t see it. I didn’t want to believe that Sarah could do something like that. But I have a feeling it goes much deeper than what we will ever understand. I knew as soon as I woke up, that Sarah and Shan were behind it all and that Rudy was dead.”
My heart froze. I found myself reaching out for Dex and holding on to his hand. Was Shan right then, that Rudy was dead? How could anyone…die? That was stuff that happened to other people, people I didn’t know…other people’s grandparents or dogs or goldfish. Not someone I had just seen, just trusted, that morning.
I was speechless but Dex was not.
“How did Rudy die?” he asked carefully. I could feel the heaviness in his voice. I gripped his hand tighter.
“I don’t know, but he’s not coming back. He was the only one who could have possibly put an end to this, the only one with the means. So of course, they got rid of him.”
Bird’s voice was wavering and ripe with emotion. I felt so bad, for everyone and everything. Even though this had been going on before we got here, I couldn’t help but feel like it was all my fault.
“Why are they doing this?” I mumbled, feeling too much at once. Dex pulled me into him and put his arm around me. I wasn’t sure if it was to make me feel comfortable or to warm himself up, considering he was bare-chested and the air had a heavy, solemn chill.
“I don’t think we can really understand. Some people get angry,” Bird said simply. It was true. That was pretty much the motive of every murder out there. Some people got real angry.
“What’s our plan, then?” Dex asked.
“I think you guys had the right idea. Get out of here.”
“It’s kind of hard when you’ve dragged us onto a cliff,” Dex said.
“This is the only way I could buy us time. You think that hiding in the house would do you any good? You think it’s tough for them to be human and beat down doors? It’s not. He’d be at you in a second. After what happened with Rudy, he’s more powerful now than ever.”
Dex didn’t say anything but he did pull me in even closer. Maybe he was scared after all. I looked up at him. With the dark clouds obscuring all starlight, his face was just a shadow but I knew his eyes were meeting with mine. I could almost hear him thinking we’ll be OK, kiddo. Only, he didn’t believe it enough to say it.
“Here you guys are,” we heard a voice drawl from above us. We all jumped a bit and turned around to face the cliff. Five feet above us stood a tall, commanding figure. He had a branch in hand, its tip lit with fire. The glow illuminated the tell-tale face of Maximus.
“Maximus!” I yelled.
He jumped off the cliff and landed beside us with a thump. It was him all right. Tall, burly, broad-chested, flannel-shirted, ginger-haired, yellow-eyed…
No, wait. Maximus had green eyes...
I tried to process that as I stared at him. He looked at Bird and slapped him hard on the back.
“Here you are, old man,” he drawled. The firelight showed Bird was just as perplexed as I was, though maybe a few steps closer to figuring it out. I looked up at Dex. He knew something was up. He stared intently at him.
“Maximus,” Dex said with a big fake smile. “You got here awfully quickly. How did you find us?”
‘Maximus’ didn’t miss a beat. “Well, you guys make it pretty easy when you’re standing on a cliff edge and jabbering loudly about skinwalkers.”
He took a step towards Dex. I noticed the grip around the branch became tighter. In the flame’s light, there was no mistaking that Maximus’s eyes now glowed vibrant amber. It wasn’t him at all.
The truth was in the fire.
I felt sick but before I could even let the feeling take over my body and reduce me to mud, Bird leaped for Maximus as if to tackle him.
But Maximus was faster than that. He veered out of the way and Bird went flying onto the ground. Maximus raised his flame in the air and brought his foot back, meaning to boot Bird off the cliff.
I looked at Bird. He stared up at Dex in horror and then pointed at me, and yelled, “Don’t trust her! She’ll be lying!”
My eyes flew to Dex’s. Neither of us understood. But we did understand what happened next.
Maximus’s foot connected with Bird’s side and Bird was kicked off the cliff. He screamed and grabbed blindly at the cliffside but the loose earth and rocks crumbled under his worn hands. He fell onto the land below with a cry.
Without thinking I made a jump for Maximus and snatched the branch out of his hand while he was unaware.
I took the branch and speared it directly into his stomach and held it there while he yelled and screamed and tried to back away. I followed him with it like I was someone possessed. I didn’t know what had come over me but I knew that this was not Maximus and that he must die, by any means necessary.
I ignored the queasy, sinking feeling, a sign I took as a matter of being human, and let my anger and determination lead the way and kept that flame pierced into him as the fire began to take over his body in one sickening charcoal burn.
He was gone. Maximus and his flame-haired glory literally disappeared right before our eyes. One minute I was burning someone alive with a lit branch, the next I was aiming a branch at nothing but empty darkness.
But a movement at my feet caught my eyes. I look down to see a cricket wobble back and forth uneasily before springing off into the void. You’ve got to be kidding me.