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What little remained of the warehouse's wall exploded in a cloud of charred cinders after one well-placed kick from Darius. Debris rained upon my head as I clamored over the foundation into the adjacent alley, and I coughed into my sleeve, squinting through the sweltering plumes as I tried to figure out which way to go.

I didn't know where we were. Police crawled over the scene like a swarm of locust, and I hadn't the vaguest idea where we'd abandoned my car. The sirens and lights continued to coruscate in every direction.

A shape approached through the smoke, and I was blinded by a headlamp. "What are you people doing here?!" demanded the uniformed firefighter. Darius' fingers formed a vice on my upper arm as he jerked me away from the man, placing his smoking palm upon firefighter's yellow helmet.

"Forget us and return," Darius snapped as he hastened into the obscurity. I had a brief glimpse of the melted handprint left on the helmet's hard casing before I chased the demon. Each breath came in choking, dusky gasps, but the floating nebula of clay-colored debris provided opportune cover for us to escape in. Twice I nearly collided with officers weaving through the smoke as they sought the arsonists, and Darius kept just ahead of me, a hazy illusion flitting through the thrashing fog.

"Darius," I rasped in a bid to slow his relentless pace. My hands stretched into the drifting haze— and I touched warm metal, yelping. My fingers slowly formed over the delineation of a twisted chain-link fence. I stepped over a curb. "Dammit, you brimstone-spitting egoist, slow down—!"

My foot descended—and kept descending. I stepped into nothingness and began to fall. My surprise came out in a rugged exhalation as my legs folded under my weight and scraped along the length of a solid, sloping embankment. I tumbled downward in an ungainly somersault, grunting as the concrete scratched my exposed skin and ripped my cardigan.

The embankment leveled out, and I landed in a sooty, swearing heap. Squinting, I peered through my singed hair to see that I'd managed to skid down a concrete causeway, and the unclean waters of the aqueduct lapped at the levee near my head, spitting cool drops onto my scraped face. Though bruised and battered, I'd fallen below the wafting smoke now and could finally draw a clean breath.

Darius stood unperturbed by the levee. His head swiveled in all directions, assessing the area, calculating unknown possibilities and strategies. One of his hands still smoldered, and the demon crouched at the aqueduct's lip, hissing as he doused his burning limb. Steam rose from the water.

Voices echoed from above, lost in the din. Darius glanced toward the blackened sky. "Hurry. This way."

We ran again, quickly traversing the slim allotment of concrete separating the embankment from the coursing river. We followed the waters north-east, climbing the sharp incline as the aqueduct rose toward Verweald Lake's vicinity, and the projects dwindled into the distance, the land beyond the government fencing became more untamed. Out of breath and bleeding, I paused at the crest of a hill to look at the valley below. Verweald was a somnolent giant, a deadly mire with flashes of fool's fire delighting in the destruction awaiting any who traversed the giant's vale. Southward, the black trails burning the sky were lightening in color as the firefighters stemmed the blaze.

"What about my car?" I asked as I kneaded the stitch in my side and turned my back on Verweald. Darius gave an irritated huff as he wrenched a new opening in the chain-link fence.

"That is hardly important. I will retrieve it later when the area is not swarming with police." He bent a panel of the fence aside. "Come."

I went. "It's going to be important when we have to return home," I muttered. A small culvert bordered the fence, forcing me to either wade through the filthy muck or jump it. I chose the latter, struggling to catch the brittle branches of a sagging pepper tree so I wouldn't topple backward into the gaping ditch.

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