“This is amazing,” Frances marveled. “I’ve never seen anything like it. I never dreamed that I would!” She gazed down at the village the way someone else might gaze at a masterwork in an art museum: so overwhelmed with emotion that Sal wondered if the junior librarian might actually swoon.
Once upon a time, Middle Coom had been a picturesque seaside town—maybe a few hundred brightly painted houses dotting verdant mounds bounding down to the ocean. It didn’t look much like the pictures on the postcards anymore.
For one thing, there was the shimmering, rippling border that surrounded it, like the shell of a snow globe. And that was the least strange thing about it. Inside, the town was leprotic with magic.
“Nobody has seen anything like it.” Asanti was substantially less enthused than Frances. “I’m not sure there’s even been an outbreak this widespread since that matter in Texas back in 1896.”
Sal gazed down at the village with a professional eye, trying to get a handle on damage done and the possible hazards. And survivors. Surely there were survivors. “What happened in 1896?”
A whole row of houses looked normal, but the road outside glistened and curved like loops of living intestine. Where there might have been pilings near the shore, a flock of majestic creatures stood motionless in the ocean. They could have passed for flamingos if they hadn’t been fifteen feet tall and covered in scales, not feathers.
“Demon rampage. Eyewitness accounts said the thing was a hundred feet tall. The history books say it was tornadoes, of course.” Asanti pulled her pack out of the van.
The streets of Middle Coom were completely empty. Sal wasn’t sure just how much traffic there should be in a small fishing village off the Irish Sea this time of year, and maybe none was simply par for the course. Even she didn’t find that train of thought convincing.
“We already knew this was going to be a big deal,” Sal said. “But we still have to do the job. What’s the plan?”
“We save every life we can,” Menchú said. “We’ll need to get everyone safely out of there.” A plume of oily smoke rose from an unseen source in the town, reached down like a tentacle, and picked up one of the not-flamingos.
“This’ll be fun,” Liam said. He scowled at the town.
Grace stretched out her quads. “It sure will be,” she said, and she sounded like she meant it.
The not-a-flamingo victim flapped maniacally as the smoky tentacle dunked it under the water, held it there for long moments, and then wafted away as if it had never been. A sheen of pink scales floated to the surface and washed against the shore.
“Well.” Sal swallowed hard. “This is fine. We can handle it.”
“I’m not so sure.” Menchú double-checked the antique silver cross at his throat and the book shroud in his bag; the first to protect him from being affected or infected by magic, the second to bind whatever the magic had come from. “Our priority is to get survivors to safety, as fast as we can. I’m going to let Monsignor Angiuli know that we’ll definitely need Team Two involved, and,” he rubbed his forehead, “I’m going to suggest he have Fox send in Team One.”
“Do you think the Network is still here?” Sal asked.
Asanti stared hard at the ripple surrounding Middle Coom. The sky wasn’t blue on the other side of it. “We won’t need Team One. I’ll find a way to deal with the Network if we run into them.”
Liam’s jaw worked silently before he took the bait. “How do you reckon?”
“We can’t be sure if this particular effect is deliberate or not, but since they’ve been such a persistent thorn in our side, we’ve learned a lot about how they operate. I’ve learned a lot,” Asanti said. “If I can find their base of operations, I might even be able to shut them down for good. No one has to die.”
Menchú looked unconvinced. “Asanti—”
“Might,” Asanti repeated. “I’ll need to investigate to be sure. But they’ve finally played their hand, so maybe we can end the Network here. If we can cut them off at the knees now, isn’t it worth some risk?”
“Arturo, you know what will happen if it’s down to Team One. These people. Their homes.”
Something heavy passed between Menchú and Asanti. “I know,” he said at last. “I’ll recommend that Team One be activated, just to watch the perimeter and make sure nothing gets out. It’s a long ride out here, and if things take a turn for the worse, we’ll want them close by. But they’ll be on containment duty only—until we’re out of options.”
“When will that be?” Sal asked.
“We’ll know it when we see it,” Menchú answered. “Grace, Sal, come with me. We’re going to seek out survivors and send them out to safety. Liam, go with Asanti and Frances to search for the Network’s base of operations and figure out how to stop this. No heroics. Don’t engage directly with the Network, and send any survivors you find to us. Let’s save as many lives as we can.”
Frances trailed Sal and Grace toward the shifting edge of the village while...