“FUCK YOU AND DIE!” Boss howled, throwing the door. “MOVE!”
A blast of lighting touched the door in mid air, thunder booming as red hot metal rimmed the entire frame.
Even from the other end of the hall I could feel the heat and taste the ozone rising from the heated walls like a stinking carcass of a planet.
Reinforced glass windows erupted into cracks, long peels like chittering rain decorating the floor.
But Boss was already moving out of the way of the next assault, tearing the door off of the hinges. My pistol quivered in my hand, and I took a shot at the Hound.
Round went wild. I was aiming center of mass, but with the pain in my ears from the close ranged thunder, it took off the head of a drone, struggling to stand back up after the lightning blast.
The only mercy from the monster was that the drones were just as scattered as we were. Some were already dead, taken by the attack itself, split into pieces and charred from the passage of lightning. Others simply sat listless and unmoving, tremors rolling down their teenaged forms.
The Hound’s eyes glinted with yellow. After images of hot plasma danced colors in my eyes, sent tremors through my nerves.
But I slammed my legs back into place, caught my balanced despite being driven half deaf, and dove into the room after the goliath that was on my side.
Teri grabbed my shoulders, and with an avian hiss, dragged me up into the ceiling after the great dog, her eyes glinting madly.
Supports swam underneath of a ceiling coated in raw asbestos and ashes. Tiles long rotted out of the roof, streams of mold where an ancient AC system had leaked. Exposed like skeletal rib cages. Paltry walls stood between us and safety.
Boss didn’t care for such restraints.
“They send and subjorn my own kind,” Boss muttered under her breath. “Contract breakers. Subverters of the hunt. I hate them.” Her hands dug into the concrete, then wrenched out the entirety of the AC, rust and all, throwing it back into the room.
“Contract breakers?” Teri scowled. “You were working for them?”
“With,” Boss grunted. “Nobody is above me. They betrayed me. My contract is void.”
“VOID!? You broke one of my necks!”
“We can deal with that later,” I squeaked, pointing behind us. “What’s going to stop it from coming in after us?”
“Nothing,” Boss grinned, baring her teeth like ivory daggers. “That’s our chance.”
Then she dove through the opening into the wall, her long axe dragging behind her, raining concrete in the wounds dug into the wall.
Teri hesitated. “Is this wise?”
I heard, just across the hall, and rapidly closing, the movement of heavy legs stamping against the ground.
The Hound was chasing.
“It’s not wise,” I said. “But trying to be wise got the two of us captured. I think it’s time to do a lot of stupid things and hide behind the warrior,” I gestured at Boss.
“We don’t have time,” Teri hissed. “That’s the problem.” But she didn’t hesitate.
We slid through the opening our monster had carved out of the ceiling.
When Teri settled, there was something stiffer in her stance. Some resolved crisis, or hastily filed one at well. Her rifle tied to the side of the makeshift clothes she’d made out of bandages and scraps from the armory so she could move more fluidly.
Across the way, over top of another room, tattered charts and logistical equations clinging (wrongly, impossibly, what was even) to old wood, half eaten by rot but not destroyed, and then the remnants of skeletons in a bathroom, black mold lingering on the ground around their bodies. Holes through the skull, rust streaked metal aside.
End of the world.
Then she punched up into the floor above and lunged through it, crashing through like a breaching whale. It gave way under Boss and she laughed as she straightened up, tearing metal fragments out of her fur with just a few cherry red blossoms of blood left behind like a painting.
Boss reached into the crater in the ceiling and pulled me up, a brief horrible moment where I dangled over the brittle ceiling and my joints screamed before I was up and out of the radius she’d left.
Teri merely left.
Teri stared at the great beast, and shook her head, spreading the wings on her back to slow her
It took me a long moment to catch my breath, hands rubbing at my sore joints, which gave me enough time to see where we were.
This hallway bore far more age and wear. Little to no care had been taken by the occupiers to revitalize this portion. No dust had been disturbed. No attempts had been made to fix the skeletons twisted together, bones picked through by predators. Broken windows had rendered everything a pale shade of ancient mold and grey. Life had come and gone here, leaving only the paltry renderings that even the lowliest of microbial life turned their noses away from.
I straightened, slowly spinning. “They haven’t been here very long.”
“Have to wonder what they’re after,” Teri said. “The King picked this place clean when he was preparing for the siege.”
Stepping backwards, I stepped on a skeleton and crunched right through the bones. Another blast of thunder sent skeletons rippling and moving down the hall, vibrating in place from the tremors.
“That’s what you’ll look like one day,” Boss said, flicking her eyes down.
Teri let out an aggravated hiss. “How is this going to help us?”
“Well,” Boss said, looking up into the ceiling. “Distance between us and the Hound. We’re separated from the drones.”
She turned to look out the broken windows. “And the radio tower is over there.”
In a way, we were closer than we’d been before. The radio tower stuck out like an angry red stain into the sky, twisted metal half terminated, half defiant. If Prime-Nest’s college tower remained intact…
Then this one had to be intact as well. It just had to.
And even if it weren’t, my Omoi was inside of it. My guardian in the night. My connection to the old war.
Bristling with enough information to be deadly in the wrong hands.
And it was in the wrong hands.
What was my life against the burden of the Omoi Node? What was my life against death? Maps? Access to the crow networks?
It couldn’t be the first node that the Fey had seized, that’d just be improbable. But it was still mine.
The tower jutted out of the top of the opposite side of the compound. Out of the top floor. There’s be a room accessing it somewhere in those midst, but it gave us an out. We could call down someone to help us, we could get back my node. Make a stand.
But that meant that we were in a narrowing bout of safety. Going outside would be suicide unprepared. Little cover between the tower and this building. A few shacks, equipment storage sites to make upkeep easier. And who knew exactly how well they’d survive even a brushing glance of suppressive fire.
So we were stuck doing another route of the building.
The sky overhead was dark, gloomy. An answer to the brewing storm behind us. Hound Weather.
Omoi might’ve told me how the atmospheric changes were anomalous and spooky, but she was gone.
“Probably still our best bet,” Teri said, rousing me from my thoughts. “And as good of a holdout point as any. You’ll need me to hook into the system, I’m guessing.”
I breathed out. “That’s the plan. Then you’ll broadcast an SOS on all frequencies. They won’t be able to do too terribly much if the whole of the scouts falls down upon them.”
“There’ll be deaths,” Teri said.
The scrabbling grew louder and louder. Ringing in my ears from the peals of thunder.
“We’ll die if we don’t try,” I said, flat.
Boss laughed. “All things die. Let’s go out gloriously. Kill the oppressors.” Her ears perked on her head, unpinned by the armor wrapping her body. Who had forged it? “Time to go, Hound’s picked up on us again.”
“We just went through the ceiling,” Boss scoffed. “And we are his prey. Let’s give him a good chase.”
Down the hallway, dust, skeletons, bones, tattered aged uniforms lasting longer than flesh itself, Teri clicked her beak. “Your node’s moving,”
I didn’t stop running, the pitter patter of my shoes (research issued specific shoes, chemically rated, to make sure mortality rates would be lower in the event of a spill) louder than the beating of my heart, but I twisted my head to look at her. “What?”
“I can trace the signal from here, someone’s moving the node around.”
“Has it left the tower?” Boss barked.
“No, it’s just being moved in the access room.”
“Then I don’t care,” Boss said. “More fodder for my axe.”
Abruptly, the noise of pursuit went silent. Dead, cold and silent.
Another brief breather, my lungs ached from the events of the last few hours, and I bent over my knees to hiss oxygen across them.
“Is she alright?” Boss asked.
“She’s meat and bones,” Teri said. “She needs to be more aware of her needs.”
“I’m right here,” I hissed. “And not everyone is in shape.”
“Live long enough and you will be,” Boss sniffed dismissively, pacing back and forth across the hallway.
“Why were you following their orders?” Teri asked, giving me a bit of space.
Boss turned and eyed Teri. “Crows aren’t known for dealing with outsiders well. I wanted to expand my reach and hunting grounds. Taking bounties is a decent living.”
“So you went after the bounty on a Warden?” Teri asked, clicking her beak angrily. “They’re not criminals, beast.”
“Beast. Such language,” Boss chided. “And you forget that the Warden is from the same people who ended the world.”
“Wasn’t my kind,” I said, then sighed. “Okay, I guess… Not my tribe.”
“Not your tribe,” Boss shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. The world’s over. Any special regard it had for you is gone. If you can’t deal with a bounty hunter, you deserve to be eaten.”
“How pragmatic,” Teri said, rolling her eyes. “Look where it got you, dealing with the fey.”
“A new friend, and an opportunity to murder those who have wronged me,” Boss said, dry. “I don’t shy away from defending myself. I enjoy it.”
“Violence is not the correct solution. It’s not sustainable when you’re dealing with people.”
“She says, carrying a rifle,” Boss pointed out.
“They’re fey,” Teri said. “They’re not people.”
“And your Outcasts aren’t people either. And the Cats aren’t people either,” Boss yawned, baring her teeth. “And I’m barely a person. Certainly seems like your morals have a stopgap that lets you do whatever you want, doesn’t it?”
Teri hissed. “The Fey are slavers, if you haven’t noticed. There’s no need for moral equivalency here, they’re literally committing acts of evil.”
“They act to propagate themselves.” Boss shrugged. “Their propagation requires violence.”
Teri chittered, clicking and grinding her beak. I stood to the side.
“Stop winding her up like that,” I said, sniffing at Boss.
Boss smirked. “The immortal races all have their whims.”
“Like the wolves and their cannibalism,” Teri asked, just as dry.
“And the Birds and their Grand Ideals,” Boss said, emphasis on the capitals. “It was nothing personal when I took you out. You were in the way of my target.”
“And what will stop you from going after my bounty again?” I asked.
“You saved my life,” Boss said. “I can always turn down hits, you know.”
Stairs greeted us from the other end of the hall. Boss eyed them, her ears flicking.
“You hear anything?” Teri asked.
I stepped forward. Dust, long spooled fibers.
And strangely, drops of fresh blood. Had I…
They must’ve dragged me down the stairs, head still bleeding. An obliteration of whatever…
No point in being angry. No point in much of anything.
Boss held up a massive paw, letting the other cradle her axe still gripping green with lymph. “I hear…
She slammed her paw into Teri, pushing her out of the way. I spun, pivoting on my heel and-
A blast of lightning erupted out of the floor and destroyed everything in the way. A brief moment before, Teri had been standing right there. An attack from below to eliminate extra targets.