Crouched in a tiny, dirty air shaft, the thin blonde girl ignored the smoke burning her lungs and the wound throbbing in her shoulder. Her attention was on the two guards in the room below her. She'd memorized the shift schedule before breaking into the highly-secured research facility-slash-torture hell. For two days, she'd hidden in the ventilation system and studied the guards. There was always a ninety-second gap between when the two below her went off shift and when the replacements arrived. Ninety-seconds was all she needed.
She listened to the sound of retreating bootsteps. Heard the clank of the metal door at the end of the corridor. With fluid, fast motions, she lifted the vent and scanned the hallway before lowering herself out of the shaft. Her ankles stung as she hit the floor, but she made no sound. Her fingers were steady as she worked the lock on the thick metal door to the cell.
Something heavy and angry slammed against the door before she could manipulate the last tumbler.
"Shh," she murmured, heart hammering in her throat, "I will have you out in a moment."
The lock clicked. She slid the tools into the pockets of her worn jeans and pulled the door open. The combined odors of unwashed flesh, old blood, festering wounds, and wet cat assaulted her while her eyes adjusted to the blindingly bright lights of the cell. A massive figure rushed her. She stood straight with her feet planted on the floor.
"You may attack me," she said, hoping he spoke English. Her Spanish was passable but her French and German were terrible. "But then how will you find your way out?"
"The others?" the hulk rasped.
"Next on my list." With her vision no longer blurry, she scanned the dark-haired, nude man for injuries. He was covered in blood and bruises, but appeared to be well enough to move. She swung her pack around, dug inside its depths, and tossed a pair of cotton pants and a black t-shirt at the man. "We have twenty-five seconds."
He dressed without further questioning. His movements gave no hint of pain. Not that she'd expected to see any. The guests at facilities such as this one quickly learned to disguise every reaction. Or they died. Messily. She handed him a protein bar before returning the pack to her back.
Icy blue eyes narrowed on the semi-automatic weapon in her tiny hands. His growl seemed to rumble up from the soles of his large, pale feet. "You are a child."
She bristled at the accusation in his tone. "You have a funny way of saying thank you."
He started to step towards her but stilled. She heard the footsteps in the hall a moment later. She envied the extra and superior senses the half-human, half-animal creatures known as Zoanthropes, or Zos, possessed. Zos were not the only magical creatures in the world, but they were unfortunate enough to have been used as test subjects for over a century by the innocuous-sounding Global Knowledge Foundation. She wasn't quite human, thanks in part to a stay in a GKF lab, but she was not on par with Zos.
She raised her gun when the footsteps neared. The Zo's movements were a blur of color as he ripped the gun from her grasp. Two silenced shots felled the guards in the doorway. She held out her hand, palm up, for her gun. He scowled down at her.
"You are a child."
"And yet I rescued you. Let's go," she grumbled, hopping over the corpses slumped across the threshold. She palmed the hunting knife sheathed at her back. "We have three minutes before this corridor is swarming with guards."
The Zo stayed so close to her back that she could feel his warm breath stirring the fine hairs on her nape. She'd read that Subject 8535 was an Alpha Prime, one with the strength to command other Alphas. She prayed he was as in command of himself as the reports stated. If he went Berserker, as some did when faced with their former jailers, she would have a Zo riot on her hands. She did not have the weaponry required to deal with such an incident.
She led him down two hidden staircases to the holding cells far underground. The howls and screams of the Zos imprisoned within echoed of the stone walls. While the upper cells were soundproofed, no such care had been taken below. The upper floors were part of the public tours, but only GKF employees ventured to the lower levels. The sociopaths who tortured the Zos enjoyed the fruits of their labors. There was no other explanation that made sense to the girl.
She held up a hand to halt the Zo when he would have stalked past her. He growled and vibrated against her back but heeded her instruction. Perhaps there was hope for him after all. She retrieved a small, square device out of her pocket and pressed the red button in the center.
The lights went out. The ventilation system sputtered and died. When the backup generator whined, she pressed the button again. The generator died. Within seconds, all electronic devices would shut down. She hit the button a third time to kill the security systems.
The doors to the cells lining the long hallway slid open. There was a brief, eerie silence before all hell broke loose. The screams that rang out were human. The girl flinched but did not rush in to help. Those who worked for the GKF, who condoned the horrors done in the name of greed and power, deserved whatever punishments the Zos handed out.
"We need to be out of here in four minutes," she stated, dropping her hand. "I have a safe house six miles away. You will have time to rest and tend to your wounded before you are taken to Fanghold."
Fanghold, the Zo haven in the Texas Hill Country, had once been a sprawling ranch. It currently resembled a military fortress. Local governments, historically Zo-sympathetic, left it alone though it was attracting federal attention. Fortunately, that wasn't the girl's purview. Her self-appointed duty was to get Zos to Fanghold. How they survived once there was someone else's problem.
"How do you know the layout of this facility? Why do you have no scent?" the Zo demanded, iron-strong hands falling to her shoulders.
"Now you get suspicious," she muttered. She mentally ran through a dozen plans to break free from his hold but discarded them all. She did not wish to hurt him nor make him warier. She needed his help leading the others.
"The GKF has only a handful of standard layouts. This one is common. It is the same as the one I…," she broke off on a sigh, surprised that she was going give up so much personal information to a rescuee. She blamed weariness and the sluggishly bleeding knife-wound in her shoulder.
"What is your animal?"
She chuckled. "Not on the first date, honey." She let out a small gasp when the hand covering her wound tightened. "Bring your people under control and let's blow this popsicle stand. We'll trade bios later."
"You are bleeding!"
"Well, you certainly are the master of stating the obvious." The girl shifted uneasily. Her mental clock said it was past time they left. "We need to leave now!"
The Zo stepped in front of her. With a growl and a few shouted commands, he had the sixteen newly liberated Zos assembled in the dim corridor. "Follow the child," Subject 8535 instructed.
"Did you name yourself?" she asked, kicking herself as soon as the words were out. Why was she making this one personal? This was not her first rescue. He was not her first stray Zo.
"Torin," she said, the name coming to her in a flash. It settled in her bones, felt right. Things did that sometimes. She'd stopped questioning it years earlier. "It is Irish Gaelic for -."
"Chief," the newly christened Torin interrupted. "I was bred for intelligence missions."
She grinned at him as they ran up the stairs. She liked the smart ones. Hell, she liked them all. But the smart ones held a special place in her heart. Perhaps she would check in on Torin during her infrequent visits to Fanghold.
There was no more time for talking. Torin shot the guards they came across before she could draw her knife. The overprotectiveness rankled, but it was typical of Zos. She was not Zo, so she was weaker. Weaker creatures were either protected or killed. She supposed she should be glad he hadn't killed her on sight.
Once the last Zo was clear of the facility, she slowed to a jog and pulled a long, cylindrical tube from a pocket of her jeans. She ran down a ten-count, drew up the rear of their bloody parade, and stopped. With a tight smile on her dirt-smudged face, she pressed her thumb down on the top of the cylinder. The detonator was keyed in to her biometrics.
She'd learned from her mistakes in the Everglades.
The explosives she'd placed at strategic points went off in sequence. The facility was constructed of sturdy materials and reinforced, but there were design flaws. A member of the Liberty Alliance who was an architect had made notes on the weak spots in every GKF facility layout.
A strong arm banded around her waist and lifted her off her feet. She was carried like a sack of potatoes to where the group of Zos was waiting. Torin did not set her on her feet but continued on to the head of the pack.
After the first five minutes, she gave up demanding to be set on her feet. If the stupid Zo wanted to wear himself out toting her along, then let him. She gave directions when necessary. Her safe house was an abandoned grocery store. The windows were boarded and the power was off. There were apartments and houses that any GKF survivors would search first. They had a narrow window of respite.
While tucked under Torin's arm, she caught a faint hint of a familiar, musky scent. It was sun-warmed wood and fresh grass and humid air. It was a scent that, oddly enough, reminded her of home. Not her actual home. The only memories she had of that hazy place revolved around her two older sisters. Roseann's tears and Jasmine's stiff upper lip.
"Do you have siblings?" she asked.
"I do not know."
"A brother, I believe," she said, closing her eyes as she attempted to draw in more of that scent. "Not at Fanghold. But free. Were you ever in Lisbon?"
At the safe house, she finally found her feet. She whirled into action. This, the post-rescue care, was something she knew by heart. Medical care for the wounded, which was just about everyone. Food. Clothing. Water. All done as calmly and unobtrusively as possible. She was a stranger to the justifiably paranoid, violent Zos in her care.
While Torin set about reassuring his people, she slipped into a back storeroom to make the call for a pickup. She had a contact within the French military waiting with transportation to take the rescued Zos to Mexico where they would then be driven up to Fanghold. She would not go with them. There was a facility in Belgium that needed eyes on it. And she needed to visit a friend and reacquaint herself with his scent.
"How old are you?" Torin asked, stepping into the room once the call was completed.
The girl shrugged, slipped the sat phone into her pack. "Fourteen, I think. I've… lost time. Birthdays are a luxury."
"You are a child."
"I have not been a child since the GKF slaughtered my foster parents and spent two years making my life hell." She shrugged again. "This is the seventh facility I have raided."
"You are a child."
"You need a new refrain, kitty-cat," she said. The lion's mane of dark hair and feline features of his face marked him as a cat. Distinguishing individual breeds was nearly impossible as Zo genetics had been tampered with for generations.
"What is your name?" Torin demanded.
It was on the tip of her tongue, but she hesitated. Only Matthias, the Rex of Fanghold, knew her true name. She had secrets more precious than her safety to protect. Her sisters were not involved with Zo matters. They'd suffered enough with the death of their real parents and with the government-enforced separation. She wouldn't drag them into her fight.
"Some call me Melinoe," she confessed. It was not a name she liked, but it was better than 'hey you' or 'girl.' Or Torin's insistence on calling her a child.
"Goddess of Shadows. Of ghosts," Torin remarked, lips curling into a smile.
"Something like that," Melinoe sighed. She settled on an overturned crate and propped her feet up on a bucket. "Transpo will be here in two hours. I suggest you set up a watch schedule and finish caring for the wounded. You will have time to rest on the flight to the US."
"You are not going with us."
She inclined her head at him. "This is where we part ways."
"You are a child! You should be in school. Protected at the sanctuary."
"Sounds like a cage to me." She grinned at him, a hint of the child she'd never truly been sparkling in her cat green eyes. "There's a political fight coming. The GKF's actions won't stay hidden for much longer. Zos will be as public as witches and vampires and halflings. I much prefer fieldwork."
She let her eyes drift shut. The wound in her shoulder still throbbed, but she would tend to that later. She hadn't truly slept in days. Though she wouldn't get any meaningful rest so close to the GKF, she could reset her batteries a bit. Just enough to keep her going.
A large, warm hand brushed over the top of her head. The air beside her shifted as a body joined her on the crate. That familiar scent, the one that screamed safety, wrapped around her. It reminded her of… laughing blue eyes and sassy words and the knowledge that her back was protected. Of successful rescues and mended injuries. Of happiness. She missed that scent.
"Rest, little shadow. I will keep watch tonight."
The roar of powerful jet engines woke her from a blissfully dreamless sleep. Befuddled and weighted down by a heavy blanket, she fought to familiarize herself with her surroundings. Not the store room. Not the attic room she'd been hiding in before the raid, either. The jet? How had she gotten on the jet?
She growled when she caught a hint of that too-familiar scent. She would have to be wary of Torin. If she was not careful, he would lock the door of a cage before she noticed the bars. Perhaps she needed to revise her opinion of the smart ones.
They were nothing but trouble.