Boss threw the door into the mess of old world rust and death, then shot me a wide toothed grin.
“Think fast,” Boss laughed, a paw hooking around my hip. Tested to make sure I was secure, faster than I could move.
Then she leapt up into the ceiling without more than a moment of hesitation. Ancient ceiling tile crumpled under her assault, and then she landed across one of the reinforced beams, heavy metal designed to keep the building intact even during the harsh storms of the gulf hurricane seasons.
Granted, we were far enough inland to not get hit too hard, but that wasn’t the point.
My heart screamed in my chest from the abrupt change in altitude, so it was less that I held onto the beast so much as I clung to Boss’s body. Her massive heart thumped slowly in her chest. Was it that her resting heart rate was so low, or that she didn’t feel fear?
She hesitated for only a moment, listening below, and then she gripped the steel beam in both of her massive paws and hurled herself forward, her arms trailing. My grip barely kept my intact, my legs dangling unseemly behind us.
Gunshots behind us; perforated ceiling giving up gasps of carcinogenic dust, the last graph of asbestos entombed in a paleolithic ceiling. Rounds shredded against nothing at all.
We hit the next support beam with a crunch of strained metal, Boss digging her feet in for grip, and then without a pause in her momentum slammed into another leap. Her outstretched arms swung through lesser supports, sending pieces falling far below to decorate the tiles. My heart slammed up another notch, and my legs ached from the jarring impact of clinging to her.
One tile ruptured under the ancient strain and hit the ground. Prince stared up at us from underneath of it, a strange look on his face from the brief glimpse I had.
Then Boss licked her lips, and swung forward again. Then again. Bullets flew past us.
Her heart beat never changed in her massive chest. How could she put up with such danger? How did she…?
Then the next support, and suddenly, the far wall seemed far too close. How fast were we going? How could she-
What sort of monstrous creature was she?
A spray of hot red blood caught my monster across the leg, a line of hot lead, gold silver fur stained
Boss let a howl slip her lips and she stumbled on the next jump, and awkward thing, and I latched onto the bar to keep us in place. A jerk from her side, and then her weight tugged unnaturally against my other arm, frantically trying to keep her balance.
Then she stumbled, and half of the supports came down, breaking the tiles beneath of us.
The drones stared at us, frantically reloading. The spent clips thumped against the ground like applause at the destruction we’d wrought; the mess hall now full of dust and debris, strewn about like a tornado.
Then she let out a final howl and swung to the side, her massive paws wrenching off the wall panelling. Dusty, untouched by man or monster for thousands of years, the wounded warrior barreled through.
Halls died and lived as we passed them, like the sun only barely kissing the horizon. Eyes from above watched us blindly. There was no god here.
Then she stumbled out of the ceiling and hit the ground in a pile of limbs. I barely avoided joining her, sliding to a halt, back and arms scraped raw by her shaggy body.
“There,” Boss said, smug. She let out a slow sigh and relaxed, doing a few stretches. Massive muscles and joints let out nauseating noises as they popped and crackled. Her leg bled greedily. They’d be able to track us.
My numb arms gave out and I slid down into a half crumpled lump, my eyes wide, brain fuzzy. “Holy fuck,” I whispered. “Are you always like that?”
“I am a good hunter.” Boss intoned. “Stand, Godling.”
I slid to my feet, feeling the burn of my legs, and the slow trickle of dried blood crackling down the side of my head. My fingers came up and brushed across the wound.
It was weeping now; no more blood. Infection might set in soon, with all of the dust.
“Here, godling,” Boss commanded, gesturing towards herself. I took a few steps in her direction, and she bared her leg for me to see. Blood, glistening across her fur, turning shaggy hair slick.
“What?” I asked.
“Pull the bullet out,” Boss demanded.
I froze, staring at her. Automatically flicked my brain to bring up relevant tutorials from Omoi, but none appeared.
“You want me to…”
“Remove it from my leg,” Boss repeated. She gestured at her fingers; monstrous things better meant for killing that ductile flexible tasks.
“What?!” I squeaked.
“Do it, Jess,” Boss hissed.
I hesitated but for a moment longer, and one of her paws settled down on my head, forcing me to bend my spine under the overwhelming pressure.
Until I was level with the wound. It throbbed with an angry pressure, beat out of the beast’s powerful heart.
“Didn’t go through,” I said.
“Hurts too much to be a clean shot.” Boss grunted, cocking her head back. “Hurry.”
“They don’t know where we are,” I protested, my hands shaking. Reaching towards the void.
“That means the Hounds will get us, soon enough.”
The hounds?! What the hell were the hounds?
Fingers slid against her ruptured skin, and the great beast hissed, contorting over top of me. Muscles twitched, quivered.
“Stay still,” I scolded.
“Work faster,” She hissed.
The hounds… what in god’s name were the hounds…?
Shiver down my spine, my hands shook. Warm blood against my finger tips, the pulse of her veins, and then the touch of something cool.
“Pull it free,” Boss demanded.
“We can wait,” I said.
The hand tighted around my head and my vision swam. “NOW.”
Dug into the deep of her skin, fingernails catching around it.
Tugged once more.
And then it flew out with the fourth tug, a bloody warped bullet. Boss staggered forward, releasing the grip on my head.
She took a few deep breaths, and I looked away from the wound, fingers soaked in her gore.
“H-hounds?” I rasped.
“No need to look so alarmed,” Boss said, striding forward. “They’ll only kill you. I’ll be put back into slavery. Perhaps Thralled.”
“How is that supposed to make me calm?”
I wiped the blood against the wall, wincing, wanting it off of my skin.
“Fear comes from lack of knowledge,” The great beast said, walking on all fours now. Long limbs swung like that of a great ape’s, knuckle walking. Ignoring her pain. “And those are the consequences of our failure.”
My tongue flicked across my lips, cracked, dry, almost bleeding. Dehydration, perhaps, the longer effects of going without food or water for most of a day. Or perhaps symptoms of my concussion, of the unholy holes in my thoughts.
Or any number of things.
But I had to get out, I had to find Tane, and Jay, and the Elder, and…
“Then we won’t fail,” I said, speeding up to walk after her. “Why aren’t the drones following us, anyway?”
“There’s no need,” Boss said, stepping in time. “This is their territory. They’re still in control.” The laconic beast stepped in front of me and kept walking, making tracks.
The alarms continued blaring in the hall, but they had nothing on the creeping chill slipping down my shoulders, down my spine.
“How are they still in control? We’ve killed-” I shuddered, clenching my teeth. “So many of them.”
“We’ve killed drones,” Boss corrected, digging her massive paws into the crevices of a door. With a wrench of her too long arms, the door flew off in a sheet of torn metal.
I blinked, peering in through the new door.
Boss reached in, and hooked her paws around a medkit bolted to the wall. Offered it to me. “Stop your bleeding. It’s annoying to my nose.”
We had time to relax, time to gather our thoughts, so I did, taking time to treat my head with a sprinkling of military surplus (how was it still intact? This was wrong wrong wrong wrong) it ached at the wound, brought a slight reprieve to the burning in my head, to the gnawing pain left in the wound, brought order to some of my thoughts. Just a touch. Just enough so I could return to being more of me instead of a jagged collection of wounds.
Boss leaned back against the wall and breathed. In, out. Her muscled body rose and fall to the tone of her rasping breaths.
“What about you?”
“Oh?” Boss asked.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“Mm.” Boss said. “I do not want to die, mostly.”
“I meant your wound,” I clarified.
“I understand that,” I said. “Not wanting to die.”
“And I am tired of being controlled,” Boss said, looking down at her claws. “And they will try to control me again.”
“It follows,” I said. “You move so fast. You can tear metal with your bare paws. How the hell do you even do that?”
“My people have devoured the flesh of the High gods,” Boss said. “We have consumed the body of the ultimate predators of this world; those that hunt civilizations in the void. We do not suffer being trapped. We do not suffer chains. We do not suffer barriers. We consume, as is our right.”
“And how is that going to help you if you can’t walk?”
Boss rolled her eyes over to me and gave me the single smuggest smirk I’d ever seen out of someone nearly double my height.
“I can walk fine.”
Then she flashed me her leg. The wound was already contracting closed, skin weaving together, viscous fluids solidifying.
“How the fuck-” I cut myself off. “What the…”
“And as long as I obey that directive, I will consume and hunt.” The wound sealed, and she tugged it away from my curious gaze.
I’m going to be honest, I didn’t know what to think of that, other than I wished I’d been more involved with the mythologies of the world. “How?”
Regeneration. The creature possessed accelerated regeneration, how the- perhaps some sort of energy, or
But why would eating the flesh of a god make them humanlike?
Missing pieces, too many of them.
Immortal Crows, regenerating beasts… what was a human to this?
“Once,” Boss said, gesturing vaguely upward. “There was a great thing watching us. Now it is dead. My people ate from the corpse, long after our old masters had passed. Now we are the predators of the land, and we will hunt whatever we like.”
She bared her teeth again, and I traced their edges. Long like knives. Clicking together, barely fitting in the mess of her mouth.
“And yourself?” I asked. What would she do?
“I am Boss,” Boss said. “I will one day return to lead, overthrowing everyone else who has named themselves Boss. Until then, I will hunt what I like.”
I swallowed again, leaning back against the wall.
“Godling, why are you scared?” Boss asked, in that almost quiet, only broken by the alarm blaring again, again, again.
“Why wouldn’t I be scared? I don’t want to die. Same as you.”
“Death does not scare me,” Boss said. “And your kind have already died. It should be a reprieve. The world is not kind to godlings; it will not suffer to be under their control again.”
“I’m not here to try and control the land again,” I said. “And… I don’t want a reprieve, alright?”
“You’d need to get out of here first,” Boss said. She rolled back to her feet, stretching once more. “Mmm… as much as dying in a pile of my enemies would suit me… do you have any ideas?”
“We get our weapons back,” I said. I had the barest inkling of an idea.
But I’d need to see what I was working with first.
She laughed, then offered me her paw. My hand slid across the strange appendage; bestial like a dogs, opposable thumbs, some strange mixture of humanity intertwined with a clearly different design. Uncomfortable.
Felt right. My too tiny fingers were squeezed by her too big proportions, and we got back on our feet and walked.
The armory was around the corner; what else could be so heavily armored and protected? Boss tore the alarm out of the ceiling with a spray of sparks, tossing it to the side, her ears twitching.
“You’ll need to keep me protected, Godling,” Boss said, walking towards the doors.
“Me, protect you?” I asked, crossing my arms. “What can I do that you can’t?”
“We’ll see if your fabled resistance holds up, Godling, and then you’ll tell me what you can protect me from.”
Both hands pressed on the doors, knocking on them, teasing at the handled, before her fingers curled, claws that could slit throats diving between them. Crunching metal, desolated steel; aged, but still whole, in defiance of any understanding I had of decay and rotting processes.
Some of it could be explained by radiation damaging decomposer organisms, but how were we able to live here?
How did it work?
Another enigma, another damn puzzle. How did the world live?
If the world was still alive, why weren’t the humans…
But that was an anthropocentric understanding of the way the world worked.
Doors resisted the behemoth as best they could, until her muscles bulged, distorting her fur, teeth bared, and she snarled, slamming them out of the places.
Ancient wiring flashed. Batteries that had persisted longer than the entirety of human civilization turned into burning smouldering wreckage.
And the smell of blood filled the air.
One last gunshot.
And this world wasn’t for humans, not anymore.