Authors: Jay Posey
For those who gave all
of combat echoed sharply through the empty alleyways, a cacophonous swirl of horrifying intensity. It was a sonic storm, growing ever louder as Cass and her companions closed the distance to the structure where they’d left Gamble and the others. White noise shrieks of countless Weir blended into a single, unbroken cascade of sound, like rushing water, punctuated occasionally by the pops and cracks of sporadic gunfire.
gunfire. Not nearly the withering volume of fire she would have expected. How many of her friends had her absence already cost her?
Once-looming buildings slumped on either side of the narrow street, dark concrete and steel with darker emptiness yawning where windows had once been. Wick led the way through the twisting streets and alleys with a broken pace; he moved with a cautious urgency, but Cass could tell by his unsteady gait that his wounds were taking their toll. His face was slick with sweat despite the cold night air and his breath came in erratic puffs. Able glided along slightly behind and to Wick’s right, weapon held one-handed, up and ready. The fingertips of his left hand rested lightly on Wick’s shoulder, maintaining contact with his teammate. It was hard to tell if he was doing so to coordinate their movement or to help keep Wick steady. Both, maybe.
Cass trailed along a few steps further back, struggling to keep herself from rushing ahead. She could easily outpace the others by twice as much or more and get into the fight that much sooner. But as loud as the fighting was, the way sound ricocheted amongst the urban ruins was disorienting and made it almost impossible to pinpoint the precise location of the battle. Wick might not be able to match her speed, but he would most assuredly take them by the most direct route. All the speed in the world wouldn’t matter if she got lost. And judging by the noise, they couldn’t afford any detours.
And yet, despite the strain she felt to get into the battle, Cass couldn’t escape the fact that every step closer to the fighting was another step further from the tunnel. From Wren. Her boy.
It had seemed so clear in the moment; sending her son back to Greenstone with Chapel, getting him out of harm’s way, while she stayed behind to hold the line with the last few defenders. In that instant, her decision had surprised her, but not as much as her certainty had. There’d been no doubt in her mind that it was what she had to do. What she was
to do. It had been only minutes ago. Here, now, she felt the first crack in her resolve. What if it was already too late to help Gamble?
She didn’t have time to complete the thought. A blur of unexpected movement snapped Cass back to the moment, a pair of Weir bursting from a cross-alley not fifteen feet away, barreling towards the fighting like hounds on a trail. One glanced their direction just as Able fired two quick bursts. The rounds stitched up its side and shoulder, spinning it off balance. It let out a gurgling squawk as it tried to catch itself but it twisted awkwardly and fell, skidding across the concrete. Before it came to rest, Wick’s rifle spat rounds into its companion. The second Weir had turned towards them, and Wick’s shots caught it in the upper chest and throat, throwing it backwards. It collapsed and was still.
“Gamble, this is Wick,” Wick said, calling to his team leader through their secure connection. “We’re inbound, two minutes.”
The first Weir writhed where it lay and let out an unearthly wail, a static-laden and distorted scream. As they drew nearer, it whipped its clawed hands out in a spasm. Able pumped two more rounds into the creature without breaking stride, silencing it.
“Say again,” Wick said.
Cass wasn’t dialed in to the team’s channel, so she couldn’t hear the response. Assuming there was one. After a long pause, he spoke again.
“Negative, will not comply.”
“What’d she say?” Cass asked. Wick didn’t answer. To her surprise, he broke into a jog. It wasn’t much faster than they’d been moving before, but he’d already looked like he was on the edge of collapse. Cass found it hard to believe he had any more to give.
“Wick, what’d Gamble say?” she called.
He didn’t glance back at her.
“Not to come.”
The words made Cass hitch a step. They were going to be too late.
The three of them jogged in strained silence another thirty or forty seconds. Cass noticed the clamor of fighting had turned sharper, individual sounds more distinct. She didn’t hear any more gunfire.
Wick took two turns in close proximity and then halted in a wide alley. Able smoothly drew up alongside him. The sudden halt took Cass by surprise but she angled herself fluidly and came to a stop right next to Wick, facing him. He was busy looking up at the rooftops on either side of them. Able kept his weapon shouldered and scanned the alleyway. Wick tapped his shoulder to get his attention.
“I need a boost,” he said, motioning upwards to the building on their right. It was a multi-story structure, but some of the rusting girders were showing above street-level where the walls had collapsed or been blasted out. Able shook his head.
I’ll go first,
Able signed. He waved Cass over. She nodded and moved into position next to the building, her back against the wall, in a partial crouch. When she was set, she nodded again and Able stepped up on her thigh, then on her shoulder. His boots dug in, but she gritted her teeth against the pain and pushed up to her full height. After a few seconds, she felt Able sink down and then push off as he launched himself upwards. He scrabbled his way up into the building. Cass looked up to see his feet disappearing into the hole. A few moments later, a dim red glow emanated above her; Able using his low-intensity light to check the building for threats.
After several tense seconds, Able reappeared. His head and shoulders poked out of the hole, and he stretched his arms down towards them. Cass motioned for Wick, and boosted him in the same fashion. She couldn’t help but notice how unsteady he was on her shoulders. Able helped drag him up into the structure, and then returned and stretched as far down as he could to grab Cass’s hands. She waved him off and though he looked at her with some confusion, he moved back and to one side. Cass took a few steps away from the wall and then ducked her head and charged at it, leapt, planted a foot and leapt again. Her head cleared the opening as her hands grabbed the lip of the second floor. Able helped pull her in the rest of the way, even though it wasn’t necessary. Once she was on her feet, Able retrieved his weapon and they crept towards Wick on the other side of the building.
The entire floor had been completely gutted, but it seemed stable enough. Rows of steel girders broke up the sight-lines amidst the otherwise flat and featureless concrete. The sound, though, was almost unbearable; a wild and fierce thing thrashing against its cage. The echoing howls of the Weir were amplified in that bare space, their waves of harsh cries stacking one atop the other. Cass had to consciously force herself not to cover her ears.
Wick was hunched down a few feet back from another large hole in the exterior wall, scanning the street below, making himself small so his silhouette wouldn’t draw any attention. Cass dropped to a low crouch as she approached and from that angle she realized Wick wasn’t kneeling. At least not in any kind of controlled, tactical sense. It looked more like he’d just collapsed to his knees.
“Wick?” Cass said. When she was close enough, she reached out and laid a hand on his shoulder. He didn’t react and Cass felt her heart turn in her chest. Her mind flashed back to when she’d found Swoop after the first battle outside Morningside; still sitting upright, coated in ichor and surrounded by unnumbered foes slain. Even in death they hadn’t been able to bring him down.
Not Wick. Please not Wick.
She moved around in front of him. His hands were limp in his lap, his eyes glassed and staring. His weapon dangled from its sling.
“Wick,” she said, “Wick, stay with me.”
After a moment, his gaze shifted unsteadily to her. He regarded her as if through a haze, then a few seconds later shook his head slowly and looked back out through the hole in the wall. Cass didn’t know what to make of the response. Until she too looked out onto the street below.
Just on the other side, she recognized the squat one-story building where Gamble and her team had stopped to make their stand. Where Cass had left them.
And all around the structure, a host of Weir formed a shrieking, unbroken ring. The first, shocking impression was of numbers beyond counting; Cass nearly cried out at the sight. It was no single line of Weir surrounding the building. It was a churning mass, ten or twenty deep in some places.
But they weren’t attacking. Not for the moment, at least.
The slain lay sprawled all about the shelter and so numerous were the dead just outside the main entrance they had fallen in a mound. A few feet further out from that mound stood two figures. To Wick and Able’s eyes they wouldn’t seem like anything unusual, but through Cass’s modified vision, they were radiant; robed in lightning, wreathed in flame. Broadcasting their internal signal in some manner that her enhanced eyes translated into the glowing forms she saw now, standing defiant before the Weir.
Lil. And another of her warriors. Cass crept closer to the hole in the wall and saw there was a third person out there with them, slumped at their feet, but she couldn’t make out who it was. Lil and her companion stood on either side of their fallen comrade, long blades held outward and ready. Why the Weir didn’t collapse on them, Cass didn’t know, but she understood that it wouldn’t be that much longer before they did.
“Wick,” Cass said, turning back to him. “Does Gamble know we’re here yet?”
It took a few moments before Wick responded.
“Finn’s in there,” he said. Finn. Wick’s older brother.
“Wick,” she said, more firmly this time. “Tell Gamble we’re here.”
His eyes flicked to her and then cleared, focused.
“Gamble, Wick,” he said. “We’re on site. What do you need?”
She felt Able move up beside her, and she glanced over to him. His face was grim, but his eyes moved quickly over the scene and she could see already that his mind was at work.
“Southwest of your location,” Wick said, still in conversation with Gamble.
Down below, one Weir broke from the circle, followed quickly by two more. A distinctive hum twice sounded above the clamor, and the first two rag-dolled to the ground. Lil’s companion stepped forward and cut down the third. Cass recognized that hum. Sky’s rifle. He was still down there, doing his work with deadly efficiency.
Something about that moment brought everything into focus for her. Sky was in there, in that little building, patiently, calmly firing as threats presented themselves. Disciplined. The initial shock passed, and Cass found herself strangely detached. Rather than an innumerable horde, the wall of Weir became many individuals. Any one of them alone posed no threat to her. How many had she slain at Ninestory? More than she’d thought possible at the time. Would this be any different?
“Negative, boss,” Wick said. “We’re not leaving.”
She hadn’t realized it before Ninestory, and she hadn’t believed it until that first wave of assault on Morningside. Twice may have been coincidence. A third test was what she needed to prove to herself what she was beginning to suspect. Whatever modifications the Weir had made to her body before Wren had brought her back... whether they had done something special to her, or whether her previous life as a quint user had caused some fundamental change to her physiology, she felt almost certain that she was faster, stronger, more deadly than any of those creatures down below.
“I’ll draw some of them off,” Cass said. “Hit the flank, then fall back.”
Wick shook his head. “Too many, Miss Cass. They’d shred you.”
“Maybe it’ll stretch them enough for our people to punch through.”
“More likely it’ll get you killed for nothing.”
“I can do it, Wick. Think about Ninestory.”
“I am,” he said. “You’d be dead if we hadn’t pulled you out. There’s no one to pull you out of this one, Cass.”
Cass looked back down at the street below. They were running out of time, but Wick was right. They’d told her she’d killed thirty or forty at Ninestory, but that’d been after Swoop’s carefully prepared charge had torn through many of them. Throwing herself into the pack down there now might disrupt them for a minute, but it wouldn’t take long for them to overwhelm her. And then what? The Weir would be right back on the people trapped in the building. Even if Gamble and the others fled while Cass attacked, they’d most likely just get tracked down and slaughtered on the run.
On the run, like Wren was now. Thoughts of her son threatened to bubble to the surface... but no, she forced them away. The decision was made. Time and again these people had come to her aid; Gamble, Mouse, Swoop, Lil... even Elan, a man she’d hardly known. They’d all risked their lives. Some had given them. She couldn’t abandon them here. Wouldn’t. But what options were there? It was like watching the ocean roll and searching for a way to stop the coming waves from crashing on the shoreline. All her strength, and there was nothing she could do with it.
And then unbidden a thought sprang to mind.
“What if I hit them from
flank?” Cass said.
“What?” said Wick.
She turned back to face him. He was up in a crouch now, weapon in hand. A good sign. “What if I stay on the move, attack from different locations?”
“What’s that gonna do, Cass?” Wick asked.
“Buy you time,” she answered.
“For what? To find a different hole to die in?”
A short burst of gunfire ripped through the air, followed by another of Sky’s shots. No more discussion.
“I’m going. Direct me, Wick. Be my eyes. Set points for me. I’ll move faster if I don’t have to decide where to run next.”
Wick set his jaw, but after a heartbeat, he nodded.
We’ll go together,
“No,” Cass said, shaking her head. “You stay with Wick, keep him covered. If they get me, maybe you’ll be able to direct Gamble out of there, and Wick can’t run on his own. You have any more of those flash grenades?”