"Good, you're all here," Magnus said after sweeping the room with her gaze. "We've had a minor complication. I'm going to have to ask you all to stay here while we resolve it. Detectives, I take it you're armed?"
Blair nodded, but Jim stared at her. "What's going on?" he demanded.
"A, ah, new guest is unaccounted for. Please wait here." She reached for the door.
"Hang on." Jim caught her arm, restraining her. For an instant, she looked ready to break his hand for it. Then she forced herself to relax, but Jim could still smell her anxiety. "If there's something dangerous out there, Blair and I can help."
She hesitated. "We can hardly leave Corey and Maria alone."
"Please, Doctor," Corey began, clearing her throat. "If you can just leave me a gun…"
"You know how to use one?" she asked, looking dubious.
"Dad was a cop. He showed me."
"Fair enough." Magnus passed her gun to Corey. "But neither of you leave, no matter what. And don't let anyone in unless it's one of us."
Corey took the gun, chambering a round and giving Magnus a grim nod. "Don't worry about us. I'll take care of her."
"Take care of yourself, too," Helen murmured. "Gentlemen, this way."
"One second," Jim answered, moving to Maria's side and dropping to a crouch before her. "Hey, Maria."
She paused her game and looked up at him with wide eyes. "Uncle Jim?"
"You take care of your sister, okay?" he asked her, voice low enough that only the two of them would be able to make out his words.
"I always do," she answered in an equally low voice.
He smiled. "Good girl. And try not to worry. We know what we're doing. We'll keep you both safe."
"I know, Uncle Jim. I believe you."
"Good." He ruffled his hair as he climbed back to his feet, drawing his gun and joining Blair and Magnus. "What's the plan?" he asked as they left the room.
Magnus produced another gun from somewhere on her person as they walked. "Ashley's not in the facility, which means we're lacking firepower. But, with the two of you, we have manpower to spare. Will and Henry are searching the south wing. If you and Blair can take the north, Bigfoot and I will search the sublevels." She passed him a walkie-talkie. "Be careful."
"Always," Blair assured her.
"Let's go, Chief," Jim murmured, touching his arm and starting for the north wing.
"We don't even know what we're looking for!" Blair protested, following.
"A large humanoid with green scales and three-inch fangs," Helen called over her shoulder, moving rapidly in the other direction. "He'll have blood on his hands and muzzle."
"Oh, that so doesn't sound good," Blair murmured, taking the radio from Jim and switching it on. "Helen, what's going on with this thing?" he asked into it.
"Ashley caught it in the sewers about a week ago. Several large dogs had been killed and at least three humans were mauled, one fatally. Will was convinced he was making headway, but he was mistaken. It attacked him during a morning counseling session and then escaped containment. The facility's in lockdown, so it can't escape. It's only a matter of finding it."
"What about your other residents?"
"All familiar with lockdown protocol. They'll remain safely and securely in their rooms until the all-clear is given."
"Okay. We'll radio you if we find anything."
"Be careful. Both of you."
"I don't suppose you know what a giant lizard-man smells or sounds like?" Blair asked hopefully.
"Sorry, Chief. It's been awhile since I've been to the reptile house at the zoo."
"Well, just keep your senses open for anything unusual. If it got into any kind of confrontation with Will, it's probably a little panicked right now, too. That might make it easier to find."
"Normally, I'd agree with you, but I'm willing to bet that every heart rate in this place is elevated right now. Stay alert," he added as they turned into a side hall.
"Thought that was your job," Blair murmured, but it didn't stop him from readying his gun as he fell into step next to Jim. "You know, when I suggested we come here, I didn't know it was going to end with us chasing lizard-men through a converted Cathedral in the dark."
"Aw, come on, Chief. You used to play Dungeons and Dragons in high-school. Just pretend this is like that."
"Okay, well, my high intelligence and wisdom stats are warning me that, if this thing's remotely intelligent, it will have found a defensible place to dig in and is probably somewhere lying in wait."
"Yeah, that's about what my borderline intelligence and wisdom are telling me," he agreed. "Don't suppose there's a spell or something for that?"
"A spell to detect ambushes? I'm sure there must be," Blair agreed. "But don't look at me, man. I was always a rogue, not a magic user."
"A rogue? Why does that not surprise me," he chuckled.
"Yuck it up, sir paladin," Blair answered, sweeping his eyes back and forth as they moved. "It might not even be in this part of the building, but something doesn't feel right."
"Tell me about it," Jim muttered. "It would help if we had a map of this place. Wouldn't put it past Magnus to have the place riddled with secret passages and bolt-holes. This creature could be anywhere."
"Well, for now, let's assume he doesn't know any of Helen's secrets. We'll check the obvious and public areas first. If we have to, we can go back to any less obvious areas later on."
"Yeah, it's not like we had time to ask her to print up maps. We'll just have to…"
"Jim?" Blair asked as he trailed off.
"I smell blood."
"I think so. Not that I have a lot of experience with other kinds."
Blair checked to make sure he had a round chambered. "Lead the way."
Jim stopped just to the left of a door. "They're in here. There's blood and their breathing's labored."
"Could be our guy," Blair agreed, flanking the door on the other side.
Jim held up three fingers. Blair nodded and held up one then, a moment later, a second. On 'three', they moved together, Jim kicking the door in and Blair entering the room close on his heels, both with their guns at the ready.
They had kicked down a lot of doors together in the past, established a comfortable pattern to it. But Jim was used to human criminals. He froze at his first sight of the 'abnormal', a six foot tall creature with a pronounced snout, green scales, and glowing yellow eyes. Blood stained its clawed hands and was smeared around its mouth. It opened that mouth in a snarl, revealing rows of unnaturally long, pointed teeth, including three inch long incisors.
Jim was able to jump out of the way of those teeth, to push Blair to safety, but was so busy minding them that he lost track of the claws. At least until two sets of four raked his chest in rapid succession. He would have cursed, but pain took his breath away. Gasping instead, he staggered out of range and raised his gun.
Blair beat him to the punch, rushing into the fray and unloading eight or nine shots into the creature at point-blank range. Jim knew the proximity was unnecessary; Blair could have achieved the same center-mass cluster of bullets from across the room. Like anything that could be learned with study and hard work, Blair's aim was excellent.
Jim watched the creature sway on its feet for a moment before going down. Blair stood over it, finger still on the trigger.
"It's okay, Chief. Its heart isn't beating," he reassured the younger cop, leaning against the wall.
Blair did not move away or even stop aiming at the prone creature. "You okay, Jim?" he asked quietly.
"Never better," the Sentinel lied. "Flesh wounds. Still got the radio? You might want to send the all-clear to Magnus."
Blair gave a shaky nod, still not taking his eyes off the lizard-man. "Helen?" he murmured into the radio. "We found it, it's dead."
"Dead?" she repeated. "Are you sure?"
"Jim says so."
"Where are you?"
"Uh, some kind of sitting room, two rights and a left from where we parted."
"I know the one. I'll send down Henry and Bigfoot directly. Were either of you hurt?"
"Uh, Jim's kind of cut up. He says it's nothing."
"I see. Once one of the others arrives, bring Jim back to the medical bay and I'll have a look at him."
"You got it," Blair agreed, clipping the radio to his belt again and looking up at Jim. He made a face. "You sure it's minor?" he asked, taking a half-step towards Jim. "Looks like you're bleeding pretty bad."
"Cuts bleed worse than gunshots. It's nothing," he lied. "What about you?" Jim rested his hand on the back of Blair's neck, watching him with concern. "I know how you feel about killing."
"Somehow, it's a lot easier when my partner's in danger," Blair answered grimly.
"Yeah, well, the monster's dead, so how about you put the gun away now?" he suggested.
Blair looked at the gun in his hand in mild surprise, the way he always did when he found himself forced to use it on something other than a paper target. Good shot or not, he considered the weapon a last resort, to be used only in extremity.
"It's okay, Chief," Jim soothed, hoping the others would get there soon.
He was starting to get light-headed, and that was going to be difficult to hide from Blair. He was not in the mood for the kind of lecture the younger man always gave when he ignored his injuries.
It was a sitting room; that meant it had chairs. He walked over to the nearest one and sank gratefully into it. It was leather, so his blood should wipe off easily enough. Later. He sighed and closed his eyes. Blair, predictably, was at his side in a heartbeat.
"How bad is it?" he wanted to know, pushing Jim's hands away and unbuttoning his shirt.
"Don't know," Jim answered honestly. "I dialed my sense of touch most of the way down. The endorphins are helping, but I can't catch my breath very well."
"You think the thing broke some ribs?" Blair asked, gingerly prodding.
"I don't think it hit me that hard. Might be shock," he added, remembering that being attacked by one of these creatures had sent Ashley into shock the previous day.
"Yeah, you've definitely got the blood-loss component down," Blair muttered, frowning. "I don't even know where to start applying pressure, man."
"Just let it ooze. It's not bleeding that bad and God knows what that thing had on its claws."
"Hadn't thought about that." Blair looked up at him. "You holding up okay?"
"Been better," Jim sighed. "Been worse, too."
"I hear that."
Acknowledging his words without passing judgment. Which probably meant Blair was more than a little aggravated.
"Someone order a cleanup on aisle three?" Henry asked brightly, entering the room. He stopped with one foot over the threshold. "Jeez! Jim, you okay?" he asked, hurrying to join him and Blair.
Jim nodded weakly. "Just a scratch."
"Hell of a 'scratch'," Henry answered. "Come on, Blair, let's get him down to the med bay. Doc's already down there with Will."
Magnus patched Jim up with quick efficiency, assuring him that it looked worse than it was, that the blood loss was relatively minor, that no bones were broken, that he would be back on his feet within a matter of days and back on active duty not long after.
Jim was glad. He wanted out of this place with its mad scientist boss, her Neanderthal butler, staff shrink who saw things that weren't there, werewolf in the IT department… It was all just too crazy.
A sentiment that was magnified when daughter Ashley walked into the med bay smelling strongly of recent pyrotechnics and wearing a smug grin.
"No more sewer-monsters," she announced cheerfully, moseying on over to her mother and planting a kiss on her cheek. "At least, not in sector three." She looked at Jim's bandages for a moment, then announced, "Cool, now we can be twins!"
"Ashley, behave yourself," Magnus directed, giving her a stern look. She frowned. "What is that smell?"
"Yeah, it was pretty rank down there. I'd better go shower now," she answered, wandering off humming to herself.
Magnus watched her go with a tight frown, then shook her head and returned her attention to Jim. "Are you in much pain? I can give you something."
"That won't be necessary," he assured her. "I've gotten pretty good at dialing down pain over the years."
"Very well," she agreed, nodding and going over to check Will again. "And how are you?"
"Little embarrassed to have another abnormal play me for a fool."
She smiled and squeezed his shoulder. "It's hardly your fault that you have a forgiving nature."
Jim sighed and looked up at Blair. "When can we get out of here, Chief?"
"Just as soon as you can travel. After meeting them, I think Corey and Maria will be fine without us right there every step of the way. We can do anything we need to over the phone."
"Good, because I need to get out of this madhouse."
"You got it, man," Blair agreed, nodding. "If I'd known it was going to get quite this crazy…"
"Not your fault. Except by virtue of the fact that you remain anchored in the geographic center of the Sandburg Zone." He laughed and patted his arm. "But I think I'm going to need some downtime to recover from this downtime."
"Simon won't like that," Blair pointed out. "But we'll tell him it's a Sentinel thing and he won't ask too many questions. We can go camping."
"Ah, I like the sound of that," Jim agreed, nodding. "What?" he asked Magnus, who was staring at him with undisguised horror. "I can keep the wounds clean. It's no big deal."
"It isn't that," she answered, shaking her head. "It's just… aren't you aware what kinds of creatures live in the forest around Cascade?"
"No, Doc," Jim answered, shaking his head. "I don't know and I don't want to know. Thanks anyway, but I'm starting to think that ignorance really is bliss."
"I see," she answered slowly, frowning. "But…"
"Let it go, Magnus," Will advised. "We all make our own decisions in this life."
"Let it go," he repeated, nodding encouragingly at her. He shot Jim a smile. "Something tells me he knows what he's doing."
"He knows, Helen," Blair agreed. "One of these days, he might even be ready. But today's not that day. Another time."
"But you're an academic!" she protested. "You can't be content to walk away without all the answers?"
"Of course I can," Blair answered, smiling and resting a hand on Jim's shoulder. "Some things don't need to be stated for you to know that they're true. Thanks all the same, Helen, but I think I'm good."