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Part Four

  Rebecca released Olivia’s collar and took the lead, sprinting past a diverging hallway.

  “Where are we going?” Olivia asked, casting a glance at the corner where the monstrous firefighter was due to turn at any moment.

  “Security office,” Rebecca responded. “By administration, right?”

  Olivia turned her attention forward. “What?” she asked, stalling to give her mind time to process the question. “Oh, right. Yeah.”

  “What we need to—” Rebecca cut herself off and nearly stumbled over herself trying to stop her forward momentum. She caught Olivia in a flailing grasp and started to pull her back, nearly yanking her off her feet. The girl couldn’t even offer a slight murmur of resistance as she saw what had spooked Rebecca: the firefighter had rounded the corner ahead of them, left hand hefting a fire extinguisher.

  It didn’t take Olivia long to regain her footing, but by that time, the red cylinder crashed down to her right, rebounding off the ground and pinwheeling. A moment later, the ax twirled by and tore its way into the metal shell. There was a brief splatter of orange before the hall was engulfed with a burst white powder and a loud whump.

  The concussive expansion threw Olivia against Rebecca, causing the younger girl to collapse where she struck the woman. With a clang, the woman thumped into the nearest row of lockers and fell. Dazed, Olivia shakily got to her feet only to stumble down to her knees. “Rebecca?” she called between coughs, lungs shuddering between the exertion and chalky cloud.

  “Run!” Rebecca said, though not with the imperative push the girl had come to expect. Olivia scrambled upright as the malignancy in her gut festered and spilled up toward her heart, no doubt signaling the firefighter’s approach. She cleared the still roiling cloud of suppressant, then turned to look for Rebecca.

  The woman stumbled into sight, hunched over and coughing. She looked up with watering eyes and waved Olivia away. “Get… away!” she choked.

  Olivia took a step forward only to stop as a towering shape emerged from the effluvium. Arcing over the woman, the fire hook swept downward and lodged its hook through the woman’s jacket and into her flesh. With inhuman strength, Rebecca was tossed off her feet and thrown back down the hallway. Before her body had even landed, the shape was swallowed back by the swirling white cloud.

  “Rebecca!”

  She didn’t even notice that she had called out the woman’s name, let alone began to charge into the settling powder. She was running on autopilot, fueled by adrenaline, toward a destination that would likely get her killed. But for whatever reason, the threat compelled her forward, not back.

  The firefighter lumbered toward Rebecca, the woman pulling herself away from the monstrous form as quickly as she could. It wasn’t fast enough, for despite his apparent slowness, the fireman’s stride made quick work of the distance between the two.

  The woman’s eyes flitted from the threat to Olivia. “Run!” she ordered, echoing her prior beseeching.

  Olivia looked around for something to distract the man, sight settling on the scorched and twisted fire ax on the floor. Without hesitating, she went for it, barely noticing how the blade had warped into a twisted parody of itself, let alone the occasional orange streaks that would ebb across its surface like burning veins. It was harder to ignore the barely tolerable heat that it gave off when she grabbed the handle and hefted its horrible weight off the ground.

  The firefighter was towering over Rebecca now, casually planting his foot down on her ankle to stop her escape. Deliberately, slowly, he put more of his weight into it. The woman, again, screamed, although she was clearly fighting to control it. When she wrested the pain into a controllable state, the firefighter raised the hook.

  With a yell of exertion, Olivia swung the ax and caught the beast in the lower back with the ax, a spatter of sparking fire bursting from the entry wound. With only the slightest grunt of pain, the firefighter snapped rigged, dropping his weapon and staggering enough to allow Rebecca the opportunity to escape. The girl put her foot on the back of the fireman’s thigh and kicked, yanking the ax free and knocking the imposing form down. Hefting the ax again, she swung it and embedded the blade partly through his helmet, partly into the flesh beneath.

  Olivia shuddered backward, releasing her hold on the ax. After a few seconds, as though having something thrust into one’s brain was something to be deliberated, the firefighter collapsed. Blood, thick and slow and steaming, pooled onto the floor. And then, Olivia gagged, doubling over as she fought to brace herself against the nearest set of lockers.

  Midway through a hack, she felt hands on her shoulders. Despite the soft touch, she shirked and pushed herself away. In response, the fingers dug deeper, locking her in place despite her efforts to extricate herself. She wanted to scream, to shout, but all she could manage was a meek, “No.”

  “Hey, Olivia,” the woman said calmly. The effect was nearly instantaneous, making the girl slow her efforts at escape. The words were enough to bring her down, but it was looking in Rebecca’s eyes that finally brought the ground up to meet her halfway.

  “I killed him,” Olivia said quietly, tears welling up in her eyes.

  Rebecca shook her head. “No,” she said solemnly as her hand dropped to weave itself into Olivia’s. “You didn’t.” With a gently urgency, she pulled the girl along with her, until they were again moving briskly through the halls. Rebecca was slower than before, but they pushed onward.

  The security office was nested in a tiny side room adjacent to the administrators’ offices. The door had a window with the word “security” stenciled in thick, black lettering, the sentiment floating above drawn, cream-colored shades.

  “Please be unlocked,” Rebecca said, releasing her grip on Olivia’s hand. She strode forward, leaving the girl to contemplate the sudden coolness on her palm. Glistening in the light, the woman’s blood had spread itself thin enough to start drying into a stain. “Please be unlocked,” Rebecca said again, nearing the door.

  The voice pulled at Olivia, and she looked at her compatriot. “How did he get in front of us?”

  Rebecca didn’t immediately answer, trying the door with her non-bloody hand. It opened easily. “Alright,” she sighed in satisfaction. She turned to wave Olivia forward. “He moves faster when unobserved.”

  Olivia melted forward on legs of rubber. “How does that make sense?”

  “It doesn’t,” the woman answered. She ushered Olivia through the doorway and, casting a glance down the hall, she slipped into the office and nudged the door mostly shut. “It’s probably intimidation,” she said, scanning the office’s contents. The walls of the room were the most orderly, as the entire space was flanked with metal filing cabinets with only the occasional bit of detritus to cover them. Other than that, a card table covered in takeout boxes and magazines dominated the central space. “Plays with victims’ emotions. Destabilizes them while giving them hope,” the woman said as her eyes played across the covers of old motorcycle and men’s health magazines. “The other option is he can teleport, and I’m not ready to embrace that just yet.” She took notice of an unsmoked joint in an ashtray placed carefully to avoid contact with the rest of the table’s mess.

  It was Olivia who found the phone first. Having moved further into the room, she had stumbled upon the beige plastic cradle bulging from the wall between two filing cabinets. “Found it,” she announced,” reaching to pick it up.

  “Sure, that’s a great place to keep it,” Rebecca muttered as she slipped further into the room. Her eyes fell on a mostly-drained bottle of whiskey near one of the card table’s legs. She knelt to pick it up.

  Olivia held the phone to her ear. There was no dial tone. She dialed nine, only to be met with similar silence. With a sigh, she tapped the hook to reset the call and dialed one. After the tone, there was still silence. “Shit,” she announced, placing the phone back into its dock.

  “Did he cut the lines already?” Rebecca asked with a verbal wince.

  Olivia turned to watch as the woman was carefully dumping the whiskey over her shoulder wound. The girl folded her arms. “Yeah, looks like it.”

  After emptying the bottle, Rebecca let it drop onto the table. “We should find something to cover this,” she said, shifting her clothing back over her shoulder. “I’m pretty sure he can smell blood.”

  “Jesus,” Olivia muttered. “Who is this guy?” she asked, now taking to cycle through the standing file drawers.

  Rebecca grunted. “You really shouldn’t think of him as a person. He’s a predator. A hunter.” A pause. “Definitely no longer human.”

  “It’d be great if you gave me a bit more background to work with than that,” Olivia muttered, pulling open a drawer packed with files. She frowned and closed it with a squeak.

  “And if he kills us immediately afterwards, I’ll die annoyed and out of breath,” Rebecca responded pointedly.

  Olivia looked at the woman. “Could you at least try to see this from my perspective?”

  Rebecca took a step toward her. “Excuse me, I have seen it from your perspective, remember?”

  Olivia huffed and returned to her cabinet search. “Oh, of course. That makes me the asshole, right?”

  “I never said that,” Rebecca said, her voice softening ever so slightly. “Knowing more isn’t going to—”

  “Hey, Dennis, did you get the stuff?” declared a crackly voice from somewhere on the card table. The two exchanged looks. “Dennis? C’mon man, pick up. Pick up.” Rebecca fought her way through the piles of magazines. “Pick up pick up pickup pickup pickuppickuppi…

  The woman’s hand closed around a two-way radio. She clamped down on the ‘talk’ button. “Hello? Can you hear me?”

  While the other side paused, Olivia saw the ragged hole in the woman’s jacket, prompting her to resume looking through the cabinets.

  “Who is this?” the voice asked.

  “It doesn’t matter,” Rebecca said. “We’re trapped in the high school with…”

  The voice on the other end started laughing, prompting the woman to curl her lip in anger. “Did Dennis put you up to this?

  “Dennis is fucking dead!” she snapped. “And we will be too if you don’t bring every cop in this piece of shit town to the high school now!”

  A bottom cabinet revealed a first aid kit, a tiny bin of cell phones, and a key taped to the inside of the door. Her first instinct was to reach for the pink, modern phone on top of the pile and try to turn it on.

  “Okay, sweetheart,” Olivia didn’t have to see it to know that Rebecca bristled at that, “put Dennis on the line now.

  “I’d love to,” the woman responded. The girl peeled the key off of the cabinet’s interior while she waited for the phone to load. “But there’s two halves of him now, and I don’t think he’s inclined to speak, what with being fucking dead.” The key had “master” etched on one side and “do not copy” on the other. Olivia pocketed the key.

  “Pranking the police is a crime, kid,” the voice scolded.

  “You’re the cops?” she asked. “Then what the hell are you waiting for?” she yelled.

   The pause on the other end betrayed an attempt to wrest more volatile emotions back into check. “I’d like you to reconsider what you’re doing…” Olivia grabbed the first aid kit and stood while watching the cell phone’s screen finally turn to a usable state. The battery was three-quarters full, but there was no signal. She turned toward Rebecca, who noticed the phone in her hand.

  “Call the school, okay?” Rebecca said. “The line’s been disconnected. If that doesn’t convince you, just come and arrest—”

  The lights snapped off.

  “Um, Rebecca?” Olivia asked, voice quaking.

  “Shit,” the woman said. “He’s cut the power, and he’s going to cut into us if you don’t get here!” she yelled into the radio.

  No one responded.

  “Hey!” she hissed into the phone. “Hey!” She tossed the radio into the corner, shattering it. “Fuck!” She started toward the door. “We need to move.”

  “Why don’t we just leave?” Olivia asked.

  “He’ll track us. Overtake us,” Rebecca responded, gently nudging the door open. “And that’s only if he didn’t trap the doors.” She peered out. “Maybe those dicks on the radio are coming now. Maybe they’re bringing their entire precinct. Scare him off or distract him.”

  “You mean he’ll kill them,” Olivia offered.

  Rebecca looked back at the girl. “Same difference.” She slipped into the hallway, illuminated by a soft and dim smattering of emergency lighting. After a moment, she signaled for Olivia to follow. “Do you know if the school leaves any classrooms or closets unlocked?”

  Olivia withdrew the master key from her pocket. “Master key.”

  Rebecca looked at it, then at the girl. “Were you ever planning on to telling me about that?”

  “I just did,” the girl snapped. She put the phone in her pocket and kept the key clutched tightly in her other hand. “So where do we go?”

  Rebecca listened for a moment. “Where’s the library?”

  A quizzical look washed over Olivia’s face, but she pointed in its direction. Wordlessly, the woman snuck off down the darkened hall. The girl followed, casting cautious glances behind them as they made their way. At the intersection, Olivia gestured to go left. A loud bang from somewhere in the school made the two jump and stall their progress. After the firefighter failed to appear, they continued their way forward. At the large glass doors to the library, Rebecca stopped.

  “So, what advantage…” Olivia started to ask, only to stop as the woman reached her hand under her jacket, toward the opposite shoulder, and winced. The girl’s face dropped as Rebecca withdrew her freshly bloodied hand and squished it onto the handle. After that, she flicked the remnants onto the floor. “He smells blood.”

  Rebecca nodded. “Where’s the nearest stairs?”

  Olivia didn’t bother pointing, electing to lead the way herself. There was another distant bang, although this was more wooden in nature. The sound only caused a flinch this time, barely impeding the two’s progress. They reached the stairwell, this one more open than the one by the exit, and climbed up it as quietly as possible. As the breached the doors at the top, the sound of shattering glass pulled their attention back toward whence they came. After a moment, they were in the second-floor halls, holding onto the door as it closed to prevent it from betraying their position.

  “Is there a spot to see the entrance?” Rebecca asked.

  “The geoscience room,” Olivia answered, once again leading the way. “Most of the science rooms have two exits, too.”

  “Good thinking,” the woman said. The praise, unexpected, made Olivia feel slightly better.

  The halls were a paler color than their counterparts below, offering a slightly brighter environment through which to sneak. When they arrived, the girl slid the master key into place and let them into the classroom beyond. A bank of windows on the far wall gave a view of the school’s front, although at this angle it was merely the flagpole, a smattering of parking spaces, and a road running parallel to the building.

  But it was enough.

  “Why the library?” Olivia asked.

  “Lots of places to hide. He’ll be busy for a while,” Rebecca answered, sliding her jacket off. “Give me,” she demanded, gesturing to the first aid kit. Olivia complied before watching as the woman opened the plastic box and set it on the teacher’s desk.

  They stood in silence for several moments as Rebecca tended to herself. Olivia cast worried glances outside, then toward the door.

  Finally, the silence proved to be too much. “You’re not really going to let him kill the cops, are you?” Rebecca snorted, trying to tape the gauze she had applied into position. “Here,” Olivia offered.

  “I got it, okay?” Rebecca snapped, staring the girl down.

  “No,” Olivia insisted. “You don’t.” They stared each other down.

  Rebecca’s posture shifted, slumping ever so slightly. “Knock yourself out,” she said as she handed the tape over. As Olivia worked, the woman relented. “They bring enough cops, he’ll disappear again. It’s the best we can hope for.”

  “That’s heartening,” Olivia muttered as she reached for the scissors in the kit.

  “It’s the truth.” With a few snips, the gauze was in place and not going anywhere anytime soon. Rebecca shifted a bit, looking at the bandage. “Thanks.”

  “Yup,” Olivia said, tossing the scissors back. Suddenly, Rebecca’s hand was on her arm. The girl looked into the woman’s eyes.

  “Look,” she began. “I’m sorry about… all… of this.”

  The girl nodded subtly, then pulled out of the woman’s grasp. “And what is ‘all of this’?”

  The woman blinked, then looked at the ground. She worked her jaw, considering the information. “My brother wanted to save people.” She sighed. “Grew up idolizing firefighters. It was the whole running-toward-danger-while-others-are-running-away thing that made him love the idea.” She scratched at her neck before walking toward the window. “Five years ago, he tried and they didn’t want him.”

  “Why?”

  A sniff of derision. “Does it matter?” She shook her head at nothing in particular. “He withdrew into himself. And then…” She inhaled slowly. “The last anyone saw of him he was running into a nursing home that had burst into flame.” Her breath shuddered. “Only a handful of people survived, and he wasn’t one of them. We moved away from town a month later. My parents were trying to protect me from the fact that the fire was caused by arson. By him.”

  “Oh, my god.”

  Rebecca blinked. “He wanted so desperately to save people that it didn’t matter who it was from.” Another shuddering breath. “When he came for me… it was so he could save me from the nightmare he created. That’s how I’ve come to understand it, anyway.” She shook her head again, withdrawing into the memory. “He had me trapped in a flaming basement, towering over me, and then… he just reached out for me. Pleaded for me to take his hand.”

  “What did you do?” Olivia asked, joining the woman by the window.

  “I dropped the house on him.” The girl gave Rebecca a shocked look. The woman gave a lopsided, knowing smile. “It was a whole thing. Very complicated.” She returned to looking outside.

  Several moments passed. “So, why me?” Olivia asked.

  “Hold on,” Rebecca said, pushing her head toward the glass. “Blue and reds!” she said with a laugh. “They’re here!” The two watched as the lights grew closer, brighter.

  “Why aren’t their sirens on?” the girl asked.

  “I don’t…” Rebecca muttered. “There’s only one of them.” Her hands went up to her head as she backed away from the window. “No. No, no.”

  “What’s wrong?”

  “There’s not enough of them.”

  The squad car swept to the front of the school. Both the male driver and the female passenger got out, though only the driver approached the school. The officer who remained at the car held the vehicle’s radio to her mouth.

  “Where’s the entrance?” Rebecca asked, panicked.

  “Right belo—”

  Rebecca grabbed Olivia and dragged her away from the windows. With a building-shaking crash that shattered the windows, the two were thrown to the ground. The first clear sound was an incoherent wailing. The second was the woman screaming, “Officer down!” over and over again.

  Rebecca and Olivia dragged themselves upright and scrambled to what remained of the windows, a few empty frames adjacent to a sizable hole in the wall. One officer, the one who triggered the trap, was crawling toward the car. The other was trying, and apparently failing, to get into contact with dispatch. From the smoking rubble of the building’s entrance, the fire ax twirled through the air, embedding in the crawling man’s skull. The other officer withdrew her pistol and shouted orders to the hidden assailant.

  Striding through the smoke, the fireman appeared. Without giving him a chance to respond, the officer opened fire. Some shots went wide, but when they struck the firefighter he would stagger. In a moment, he was within arm’s length of the officer. He ripped the door off the vehicle and slammed it against the woman. The impact forced the officer’s head against the car, a splatter of blood streaking on the white metal before she crumpled to the pavement.

  The fireman dropped the door and returned to his ax, yanking it free of its once-living mooring. In a flash, he sunk the weapon into the car’s gas tank, the sparking the fumes and causing a dancing flame to eat eagerly into the air. He turned back to the dead man, hefting him onto the car’s roof as the fire spread, engulfing the interior of the vehicle.

  “She’s alive,” Olivia muttered with horror, pointing toward the officer who was trying to crawl away from the pyre. The firefighter somehow sensed this, too, or perhaps it was always the plan, and returned to his victim. “No!” Olivia shouted, to no response. The man knelt and grabbed the woman by the nape of her neck. “Hey, asshole!” she screamed.

  “What are you doing?” Rebecca hissed.

  The girl looked at the woman with pleading eyes. “You can’t let this happen!”

  Rebecca looked outside, then back at Olivia. Something seemed to stir in her, and she squeezed her eyes shut. “You wait. Then you run,” she ordered.

  Olivia shook her head. “What?”

  Rebecca sprinted toward the gaping hole and slid through, landing awkwardly on the ground with a grunt. She straightened up and yelled, “Morgan!” This got the killer’s attention. “You want me, you got me.” He released the officer and turned toward Rebecca. “Let’s end this.”

  Olivia watched in horror as Rebecca disappeared into the smoke, the killer—the woman’s brother, Morgan—in pursuit. She couldn’t help but feel despair at the sense she had just condemned her rescuer to die.

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