A few seconds later, Tayo emerged at the entrance to the cavern, Seb following close behind, and with Genevieve, Cece, and the adlet at the rear.
One of the kidnappers made an involuntary noise at the sight of the adlet striding along next to Genevieve with her head held high despite her disheveled clothes, unkempt hair, and the zip tie around her wrists once more.
No one paid the outburst any attention.
The man with the slicked-back hair stepped forward, examining our ragtag crew with undisguised disdain. “I see you have something of ours.”
“And you took something of ours,” Tayo replied acidly. “Barnes too, I assume.”
The man gave a single nod of acknowledgement.
One of the others spoke up. “You didn’t hurt her, did you?”
Tayo spared him a cursory glance, and then looked at the adlet, giving her a pointed look.
“I’m fine,” she said, voice sounding wooden. It wasn’t a direct answer to the question, and I wished I knew what Seb had really done to her. “They just want to trade. Me for the bird and the old man.”
“Lars, please,” someone on the smugglers’ side said in a low voice.
“Why would we trade for both?” asked the man with the slicked hair, who I assumed was the aforementioned Lars. “You only have one bargaining chip. If we offered to let you choose between them, you’d obviously pick the human, so that’s what’s on the table.”
“No deal,” Seb said curtly, his voice ringing out loudly and bouncing off the cavern walls. “We want the thunderbird.”
The others looked surprised by this—Genevieve in particular, who was staring at Seb like he had suggested they offer her up to the kidnappers instead of the adlet. But to me, his tactic seemed obvious: an argument would keep them distracted far longer than agreeing outright to their terms.
“Let’s go,” I said to Eva, pointing past the now abandoned circle of tents. She looked momentarily confused, but followed my lead, the two of us crouching to stay as low to the ground as possible as we scuttled over the the spot where the thunderbird was curled up.
It stirred as we approached, one huge eye fluttering open to give us a calculating look. I held my breath and stayed utterly still, waiting until it seemed we had passed the creature’s test and it no longer regarded us as a threat.
Eva went straight for the bindings around the bird’s talons. I knelt on the ground next to her and reached for the other foot, clumsily fighting against the intricate knots and trying not to shudder at the feel of rough scaly skin beneath my fingers. The thunderbird followed our progress with curious eyes.
“No,” I could hear Seb saying loudly from the front of the cave. “The bird first. Then her.”
Eva whispered furiously under her breath as she struggled with the last knot, before letting out a quiet hiss of triumph. “Stay here,” she said quietly to the bird. She gave it a quick pat before turning to me. “Come on, we need to hide again.”
I’d thought we would just free the bird and then wait it out, but clearly Eva had come up with something better in the meantime. We went back to our previous hiding spot and crouched low as a woman with bleach-blonde hair and sallow skin walked past the circle of tents over to the bird. She glanced once over her shoulder, directing an incredulous look at her companions.
“Marta?” Lars said calmly.
She shook her head in resignation and knelt down, starting to loosen the rope around the stakes themselves, apparently without noticing that the bird was already free from those very same binds.
“Now Ellie,” Lars said, nodding toward Seb.
Genevieve and Tayo looked at each other and shrugged. She shoved the adlet hard in the back, sending her tumbling into the arms of a red-haired man standing next to Lars. As soon as the adlet had crossed the invisible boundary dividing the two groups, Slick had a cattle prod in one hand, leveled directly at Seb’s throat, the tip already humming with electricity.
Seb assessed the weapon calmly. “For what it’s worth, we weren’t exactly expecting you to keep up your end of the bargain.”
I heard Eva whistle loudly in my ear and then Marta screamed as the thunderbird shot up into the air. It slammed into the roof of the cavern and sent a shockwave hurtling through the vast space as it flapped its enormous wings with enough force to propel it firmly out of reach.
Eva gripped my hand so tightly my fingers went numb. “Find Brother Barnes,” she said breathlessly. “Just get him out of the way.”
She sprinted toward the whirling hurricane of feathers and talons as it lashed out at anyone in its vicinity.
I clumsily picked myself up off the ground and started toward the center of the cavern, where one of the tents had tipped over in the commotion and was quickly turning the small campfire into a raging inferno. The heat was searing as I neared the flames, and I had to squint to see through the pungent smoke from the melting nylon fabric as it started to fill the cave.
The first tent I unzipped was empty. I fumbled with the second, pulling the zipper down only a few inches before it snagged, but it was enough to see that it was just as fruitless as the first. Flames were already licking at the edges of the third tent, and I wrenched the flap open to reveal a man sitting inside.
He was old and tired-looking, with bruises covering most of his face and lime green bungee cords wrapped tightly around his wrists. He stared up at me with a vacant expression.
“Brother Barnes?” I gasped, a cough following almost instantly.
He nodded, and I grabbed his arms without thinking, yanking off the cords and pulling hard until he was standing. He followed me without question and we raced away from the growing bonfire only to collide with what felt like a brick wall.
Looking up, I saw that we’d actually run straight into the willowy blonde who had been ordered to free the thunderbird, Marta. With gritted teeth, she crouched down and twisted a fist into the collar of my jacket, somehow lifting me with only one arm up above her head until I was dangling nearly a foot above the ground and gasping for breath.
Then a second collision, this time from above. Both Marta and I went flying. I slammed shoulder-first into a stalagmite a dozen feet away and lay there with my back resting against the solid stone column as I tried desperately to catch my breath. Marta was lying limp on the ground a few yards away, the thunderbird hovering over her like a vulture waiting for its prey to die.
Looking around, I could see that the fight was more or less over. The fire was dying down, the only fuel for it now ash and char scattered across the ground. The thunderbird floated down and settled against the far wall of the cavern, preening its feathers as if nothing had even happened.
I could see Seb at the opposite end of the cave standing over a figure lying prone on the floor. I couldn’t tell if the person lying there was one of our people or theirs, but then it didn’t matter as Lars emerged from the shadows and reached behind himself for the knife on his belt.
I yelled out a warning, but I was too far away to do anything but watch.
Seb turned to look just as the other man plunged the knife straight into his abdomen, and I muffled a scream behind my hands, tears springing to my eyes. Seb sank like a stone, twitching on the ground as Lars grinned down at him with blood streaming from his nose and mouth.
A fist struck him square in the jaw, and Lars toppled without making a sound, revealing Gen standing there behind him. She dropped to her knees, breathing heavily, and bent down over Seb, obscuring his face from view with her long brown hair.
I blinked away the tears welling in my eyes and told myself there was no use in sitting there crying.
I scrambled painfully to my feet, nearly falling down again when a jolt of pain shot through my back. I staggered past the blonde woman, Marta, still lying flat on her back where she’d landed when the thunderbird had rammed her. I wasn’t sure if she was even alive, but I didn’t stop to find out.
I collapsed again a few feet from Genevieve and Seb, on my hands and knees in the dirt and unable to take another step. A soft hand descended onto my shoulder and I started.
“Easy,” Eva said quietly. “We’re safe now.”
“I can’t—” I gasped. “I couldn’t—”
I felt myself being enveloped in her arms. “It’s okay, Pemberly, just calm down.”
I looked up at her helplessly. Seb was dead. Or dying, it didn’t matter which. I needed to get to him. Pushing Eva away, I crawled the last few feet over to Genevieve, who had Seb cradled in her lap.
She looked up at me, her face gaunt. She looked hollow, empty; there was nothing there behind her eyes. I was afraid to look down at Seb for fear that I would see the same thing in his.
A hand suddenly latched around my wrist from out of nowhere. I glanced down to find pale skin covered in tattoos surrounding my arm.
Seb’s head was lying in Gen’s lap, a smear of blood on her pants and streaked through his blonde hair. A bruise shone starkly against his cheekbone. Slowly, I moved my gaze down to where he was clutching the bloodied jacket covering his abdomen. The knife was gone, and looking around, I could see it was nowhere to be found. If Lars had pulled it out after stabbing Seb, he’d only bleed out faster.
I reached for Seb’s hand, my own shaking as I pulled it away from the tear in his jacket.
“I’m fine,” I heard him say, but I didn’t process the words, moving my hands to pull up his clothes to assess the damage. “I said, I’m fine,” he repeated. “He just grazed me.”
I stared blankly at the shallow graze across his skin just below his belly-button. “You should be dead,” I said hoarsely. “I saw him—”
“He missed,” Seb said firmly. “He fucked it up, I’m fine.”
I looked up, bewildered, into Genevieve’s eyes. She stared back at me unblinkingly, looking more like the corpse I’d expected Seb to be when I finally reached him.
“Is he okay?” I asked her. “What happened?”
“He’s fine,” she said in a trembling voice.
“Go get Brother Barnes,” Seb said with a loud groan.
I stood up on shaky legs, turning to find Eva standing over the spot where I’d collapsed with her arms crossed, lips pressed together tightly in an unreadable expression. I walked past her without a word over to where Barnes was standing with one hand pressed against the cavern wall. He was watching as Tayo pushed a blonde kid who looked like a miniature Marta over toward where the adlet was sitting on the floor, holding a red-haired man with prominent orange cat ears in her arms.
I stood next to him silently for a moment, waiting for him to speak first.
“It’s strange,” he said in a gravelly voice.
“To see them together.” He didn’t sound disgusted by the prospect. “Nekomata and adlets don’t typically get along, and yet.”
I looked over at him, taking in the fond expression on his face, like a father who was proud his children were finally playing together instead of fighting for once. “Aren’t you angry?” I asked him.
“What would be the point?” he said before turning around. “Seb wants to speak to me, I assume.”
I just nodded.
Barnes sighed. “That boy needs to learn some patience.” He limped across the cavern over to where Seb and Gen were still sitting on the floor.
I watched from a distance as Gen carefully positioned Seb so that he was propped up against a rock before she stood and threw her arms around Brother Barnes’s neck. He returned the embrace, and after a moment I felt compelled to look away, feeling intrusive.
I sat down at the back of the cavern alone, feeling my muscles screaming in relief now that I was no longer standing. When I looked up again, Eva was still standing in the center of the cavern, staring at me. I pretended not to see her, and closed my eyes.