“I don’t understand,” Wylie finally spoke. He stared blankly at the huge metal crate. It was the type used to ship cargo overseas. The box was covered by others and there were piles of them. It was like looking at a colorful collection of LEGOs a giant child failed to put away after playing for the day.

“I just need you to open it.” Roth had switched to chewing on the end of his cigar instead of smoking it. It was a habit he did when he was excited.

“What’s in it?”

The rest of the gang was behind Wylie with guns at the ready. For what, he wasn’t sure, seeing as they hadn’t even left the fucking docks yet. Roth led them all down the boardwalk as if they were getting ready for an all-out gang brawl. But there wasn’t another gang waiting. No, it was just some big red crate.

“That’s really none of your business, now is it, kid? Just open the crate.” Roth gave another chew on his cigar and grinned fiercely.

Wylie’s nerves were frayed. Diego had Beck in a headlock; his thick arm was around Beck’s delicate neck and gun pressed to his sweating temple. Wylie already agreed to do whatever the fuck they wanted but they still felt the need to drag Beck around like a ragdoll getting ready to be executed. That was only the tip of the problem. Even though everyone had their guns drawn, Diego’s was the only one pointed at Beck. Everyone else was aimed at the crate Roth wanted him to open.

Whatever was inside the thing, he had a feeling he didn’t want to be the idiot to open the door to let it out.

When Wylie still made no move to approach the container, Roth gave a nod to Diego. Beck gasped in fear when Diego squeezed his throat painfully tight.

“Shit, chill the fuck out!” Wylie snarled. He glared at the junkyard gangster and hoped Beck could hang on a little longer. Beck had gone quiet after the first strike when Diego felt the need to punch him for being too slow. Sure, Beck could smart talk himself out of a lot of shit, but he couldn’t handle pain.

Wylie tentatively approached the crate. He raised his hands out in front when he felt something in the air. The metal container was eight feet tall, eight feet wide, and twenty feet long. There was something really wrong about it, something he couldn’t fully identify until he let his dragon out and scales erupted over his flesh in a cascade of shimmery black.

His muscles bulged, body lengthened in height, and senses roared into focus. Wylie could easily hear the gasps behind him and a few guns pointed his way now. Great. Just what he needed, to get shot by some trigger happy fucktard while doing a job for Roth. The thing in the crate might not have a chance to kill him if the idiots shot him first.

Wylie stepped forward with a clawed hand out, and flinched when some sort of barrier buzzed before him. Magic. The fucking thing reeked of magic. The metal crate was wrapped in a barrier of protection. It buzzed so powerfully it gave off the scent of singed ozone.

He turned. He wasn’t about to bullshit with Roth. “There’s a barrier, a strong one from what I can tell. I don’t know any magic. I won’t be able to take it down…” he trailed off and fixed on Adam when he stepped forward.

“You’re a dragon. Your scales will protect you from the barrier enough so you can pass through.”

Wylie had a dozen rude words for the little shit. Adam was a sorcerer and he knew about dragons. “My scales might give me some protection, but this spell is strong. It’s going to hurt like a fucker. Even if I can get through it, I won’t have any strength left to rip through the damn crate after.”

Roth had another chew to his cigar and raised his hand. Diego immediately pushed Beck forward, grabbed him by the shoulder and turned him. Diego’s hand with the gun slammed down across Beck’s face. Beck howled in pain.

“God damn it!” Wylie snarled and went to run back and beat the shit out of Diego, only to stop when he heard a gun click. Fuckers. The god damn fuckers.

“It’s up to you, Doe.” Roth’s dark eyes were full of malice. “A little pain on your end or watch your pretty boyfriend’s brains get splattered on the docks. What’s it going to be?”

Why the fuck had he ever let B talk him into joining with these fuckers? Beck sure looked to be questioning it. Fear was bright in his eyes as he gingerly touched the swollen flesh below his eye. Blood dripped from the wound.

It didn’t matter. They were in shit deep now, and it was up to him to get them out of it. Wylie didn’t know what the fuck was in the crate but he knew he was afraid of it. Maybe even slightly more than his fear of what Roth would do to Beck if he failed. But B was depending on him. The naïve idiot still hung with these losers even after Diego proved just how untrustworthy the whole group was. He was the only way Beck was going to survive and in that moment, Wylie resigned himself to his fate.

Hopefully, whatever the fuck he released wouldn’t kill them all once it was free.

Whirling back, Wylie put held both his demon arms up and threw himself at the invisible barrier. “Fuck,” he growled as a current of magic rushed through him. It was beyond painful even with his scales. He felt his dragon stir from the pain. The beast pushed closer to the surface as it tried to help.

Wylie’s arms had at least made it through because his hands no longer burned. It meant the rest of his body still needed to get through the thick barrier. He gritted his teeth and stepped forward. This might kill him. Being found stuck halfway through some invisible barrier with a really stupid expression on his face hadn’t been at the top of his list of cool ways to kick it.

His dragon gave another shudder of power. It was helping him move faster and tried to force them through the barrier quickly. Wylie’s scales fluffed out in defense like the dragon wanted to slice the barrier the same way it would a physical target.

He abruptly slammed into the crate as he broke past the magic resisting him. The barrier gratefully didn’t reach the actual metal. He realized why as he stood there panting with his face against the cold container and tried to get the sounds of his own screams to stop echoing in his head. There was a thin gap between the magical barrier and the crate. The longer Wylie stood in it regaining his strength the more he realized how difficult it was to breathe. Air couldn’t get through the barrier either.

He reached for the thick padlock and immediately pulled his hand back when his skin burned. It wasn’t like the barrier magic, but it was very familiar to when he took a hit to his head trying to get out of the police car. Testing his theory, Wylie raised his claws to the wall of the crate before him, and slid down in a deliberate slash. Thin scratches taunted him. The metal barely gave to his dragon strength. It was imbued with the material used to make the nullifiers.

“Give me a fucking break!” He dared to look back where there were two dozen assholes with guns ready to kill Beck if he failed. Beck was on his knees with another bruise on his face. Fucking Diego.

He couldn’t stop now. He could either asphyxiate while standing there hoping something would change, or magically electrocute himself trying to get back through the barrier. Both options would still get Beck killed.

Wylie curled his hand into a fist, puffed his scales out, and slammed down on the wall of the crate right above where the lock was in place. He didn’t need to tear a hole the size of him or break the lock, he just needed to get the lock off the door. The metal was stronger than anything he’d tried to break before, but it wasn’t indestructible. The wall was much thinner than the door and brute force crumpled it like paper.

When a black hole appeared after a particularly heavy blow, Wylie tore his claws into the opening. He grabbed and wrenched down hard, and pulled the metal apart like a jagged can. He smiled grimly when the lock fell free and nearly stumbled back into the barrier. Stale air greeted him, along with the scent of urine. Wylie pulled the door open; the barrier gave to the null metal but not enough to allow him to open it wide.

His dragon’s night vision took over and Wylie peered into the dark crate with growing dread. Something moved, something very much alive as it scraped on the metal floor.

“Holy fuck,” Wylie whispered. He stepped into the yawning darkness with eyes fixed ahead.

Wylie didn’t return after a few tense minutes. Diego took a kick at Beck out of spite, who hissed and grabbed his side. “What the fuck is he doing?” Paranoid and pissed off, Diego looked ready to beat the fuck out of someone. When he saw Wylie’s fully scaled form he nearly pissed himself. If he actually had, Beck thought it might make up for the fucker ruining his face.

“The barrier is still up,” Roth reminded calmly. His stub of a cigar was almost completely chewed to the quick.

“He’s alone in there with our loot.”

Beck watched Roth out of the corner of his eye. The gang leader was unconcerned. Clearly Diego had no idea what was in the crate, but Roth sure did and was unmoved by the fact that Wylie was alone with it. The leader’s next words sent a chill through Beck and he gasped.

“He’s going to be dead either when he comes out or by our friend in there. Less work is less work.” Roth stepped towards the barrier and called out into the opened gap of the door. He pulled his stub of a cigar from his mouth to be heard when the barrier kept him from getting too close. “Come on, kid. That thing has already killed twenty guys just during its capture. Get your ass out here and let us take care of it.”

No answer came. Roth turned to Adam and waved him over. “Think you can get this barrier down since he broke through it?”

Adam glared at the invisible wall of magic and raised his hands. He sighed after two minutes of no effect. “It’s weaker where he went through but I’m not strong enough. It’s a really powerful spell.”

Roth nodded slowly. “We need a way in. Can you make a hole the next time he comes out?”

“Maybe… If Wylie is right in the middle of the barrier at the time.” Adam looked uncertain.

Roth smirked in anticipation and turned back to the crate. It was utter darkness through the gap of the door but he had faith Wylie hadn’t gotten himself killed just yet. “I’m not fucking around, Doe! Get your ass out here or I’m killing your boyfriend.”

Wylie could hear Roth fine enough but there was no way in fuck he was leaving. It was a kid. There was a kid in the crate tied up and struggling to breathe. Not a monster, not a pile of treasure but a poor, scrawny kid. He couldn’t have been over eight. He was pale and thin with dark hair. His bangs fell across his cherub face. He was also terrified. Some psycho had wrapped him in chains made of the same metal Wylie just broke through. The kid was hogtied head to toe and reeked of human waste and fear.

Wylie crouched down and moved closer. He wasn’t sure if he could see him in the utter darkness of the crate. The kid’s breathing sped up and he let out a terrified whimper while he tried to roll away.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” Wylie assured soothingly. “And I’m not going to let those creeps outside hurt you.” The kid’s flesh was red under the chains. It had to hurt. He was either a shifter or a sorcerer, and someone had tied him in chains that would burn his fucking skin.

“Can you speak? What’s your name, kid?” Wylie tentatively reached his hand out and brushed the boy’s face with his knuckles. He watched green eyes widen in realization that he wasn’t fully human.

“D-Dante.” His voice was soft, and had an Italian accent. He sounded like he hadn’t had water in days. He was still looking determinedly in Wylie’s direction. He peered intently as if he’d be able to see him if he only squinted hard enough.

“Dante, my name is Wylie. I’m a dragon shifter. Have you ever heard of one of those?”

Dante shook his head mutely and his eyes grew wide.

“That’s okay. I didn’t know they existed until a month ago, but I’ve been one my entire life. It means I’m really strong, Dante. I can get through magic lots of other people can’t. Because of that, some people might want to hurt me.” He leaned closer and Dante blinked at him in the dark. “Did someone want to hurt you?”

“I can do things others can’t,” Dante whispered. “Big things.”

Wylie’s fingers twitched towards the chains and the nullifying magic that threatened to burn him. A sorcerer then. Would a shifter wrapped in these same chains die? He could feel the power in the metal and hadn’t even touched them. “I’m going to get these chains off of you, Dante, then we’re going to get the hell out of here. I’m not going to let anyone hurt you, I promise.”

“W-Wylie?” Tears sparkled in Dante’s eyes. “You’re not… you’re not afraid of me.”

Wylie smiled grimly. “Nah, kid, I know what it’s like to have a lot of power. But I always chose how I use my power. If you’re not afraid of me, the guy you can’t even see that just tore through a metal door to get to you, I’m not going to be afraid of you. Okay?”

“Okay,” Dante answered softly and closed his eyes. “I’m not afraid of you either.”

“I’m going to try and get these chains off of you. It’s made out of a metal that hurts me, so don’t be scared if I start yelling. Can you be brave, Dante?” Wylie was sure he could. He survived a trip overseas alone in the dark while chained up; the kid was brave.

“Yeah. I’m brave.”

“Good. I’m gonna get you out of this shit.” Wylie stared at the chain carefully. It was thin enough, and if it had been made out of any other metal, he would’ve been able to break it like blades of grass. But it wasn’t normal metal. He turned Dante carefully and found a link that didn’t look as well welded as the rest. The raw edges of metal were exposed. If he could bend it far enough, he’d be able to get him free.

“It’s hard to breathe,” Dante whispered while Wylie struggled with the chain. Wylie gritted his teeth from the pain and exertion.

“It’ll be better outside.”

Dante nodded at the answer and slumped on the metal floor. His muscles lost tension while Wylie’s efforts caused small bursts of pain whenever the chains moved.

“What’s that?” Dante’s head turned towards the door down on the opposite end of the crate.

Outside, Wylie could hear gunshots. He growled under his breath and pulled tighter on the metal. The chain cut into his fingers and grew slippery with his blood. He couldn’t leave Dante until the kid could defend himself, not after he heard Beck talk about the amount of money this score was going to make the gang.

Roth was going to sell Dante to the highest bidder, but only after he took the kid from the people who stole him first. And whoever stole him, they fucking knew what they were doing. The crate was damn near impenetrable and the chains impossible for Dante to get out of on his own. Adam apparently knew a fuck ton more than he let on. No, none of this was sitting right with him. He could only hope Roth wasn’t stupid enough to kill Beck, his only leverage in getting Wylie to obey.

Dante whimpered in fear when more gunshots fired outside. “Fuck,” Wylie muttered. He wasn’t beating the fucking chain, just bleeding all over the thing. Pausing, he focused inward and tried to reach the dragon inside. They needed more if he was going to get Dante free. He needed greater strength and he was willing to let the dragon have more of his body in exchange.

Wylie grabbed the chain with both hands, ignored the searing pain, and pulled as hard as he could.

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