Thirty eight minutes,” I read off. Why was I there? I was just a D rank. Didn’t need to be there except… maybe… maybe I could hold them off.
The head cracked to the side and stared at us, wild eyed.
“Last trial,” I whispered.
Then its legs slammed into the pavement, buckling it, and it ran towards us. Each foot fall cracked pavement.
A few things happened at once. Any of the heroes that had any sort of range opened fire on it, cracks of lightning, bizarre energies, fluids, anything at all, all mixed together into a wall of death.
I’d seen this before in old war tapes of the korean conflict; tanks obliterated in seconds by volleys of powered fire, then the hero on hero conflicts, war veterans spiralling together trying to fight because their countries had empowered them do.
I hoped against hope that this would be the case, and under the wrath of everyone there, it might be obliterated.
I caught Colton joining in on the range, hurling knife after knife into the chaos, the whirl of fire and caustic death.
The fire petered out after a minute of sustained power; the majority of those involved were old. Tired. Hadn’t used their powers like that in decades.
The front half of the beast was gone. Could see squirming organs, studded with knives and blades. Harsh white bone, polished to a horrific gleam.
Then watched the muscle slowly crawl across the exposed framework like a carpet of worms, rapidly reconstituting. Muscles knit together. The front of the skull recovered, and the gleam of innocence was back in those black eyes.
For a moment I thought I caught sight of something childlike across the expression.
But I hadn’t moved yet, transfixed by what was in front of me. So I took the first of my grenades, in full Eradicator armor, and threw it at the beast. Wind guided the throw, and it bounced off of its healing face and exploded.
I led the gas down into the creature’s lungs. Felt the wretched thing stand up, and stumble slightly. Remembered how this had downed Colton.
It opened up his mouth and started screaming. Human teeth. Too many of them, tucked into its mouth, a roaring wall of cancer and rage, rows of human teeth nestled together.
The scream was melodic, like a song. It was loud enough to make my ears ring.
“That’s enough of a rest,” Everyone stared straight ahead and it occurred to me, through my ringing ears, that everyone else was just as bad off for hearing as I was.
They couldn’t, and the beast, dripping with mace, tear gas, pepper spray, clawing for air, lumbered toward us.
One of Colton’s knives found itself lodged in the beast’s neck, before a flex of muscles sent the bit of steel out of the muscle and back into the ground. Then another found its mark. Then another. Then another. Colton kept the fire up, and then it was rejoined, inch by inch, by everyone else. Had only a dozen grenades on me, but I kept careful time and kept throwing them at it, trying to guide the attacks to do the most damage.
Heard the hiss of burning flesh, the crackle of broken bone. Heard noises that’d been the death of any other man, had been the death of people we’d fought. An uproaring of power that hadn’t been seen on American soil in years, perhaps.
It kept right on walking, even as muscles cooked and baked, and crackled, fried, sliding to the side as new muscle and skin grew over top of it.
How were we supposed to beat it, when all of us together couldn’t stop it from walking forward?
“Time?” Hands asked.
I looked down at the Com. “Thirty three minutes at the earliest.”
She took a shuddering breath and let it hiss out.
“Then we’ll hold it for thirty three more minutes.”
There no doubt in her voice. Something harder than steel, capable of stopping bullets.
No words were left. Only the scream of the Lost Boy.
It was down the street before the clock hit 31.
“SCATTER!” I shouted, and dove for cover behind a tombstone.
The others did as well, the fire keeping the beast back slowly, then disintegrating as people found out just how close they were willing to let it get. Muscles bulged and rippled, and with a slow shock, a slow realization, I realized they were bigger than before. Thicker. Armored.
It was improving from our fire. Did it have some rapid evolution to keep it moving?
It had sacrificed speed in exchange for supernatural durability, but it didn’t stop it from entering the first graveyard.
People had died here long before heroes had been around. People would die there long after heroes had vanished from the earth. Like tiny shrines to the fallen.
The beast lumbered into the first slab of marble and shattered it. A retired hero narrowly avoided having his head replaced with a fist as he dove to the side, but he wasn’t so lucky the second time. Wasn’t so lucky.
The hit sent him flying into another grave.
This one might as well have been his own.
I swallowed. Looked down at the com.
“Thirty minutes,” I called out.
I’d been willing to trade myself for thirty minutes before. Thirty minutes before reinforcements would arrive.
I’d have to ask everyone else to try for the same feat.
“Our lives for thirty minutes,” I licked my lips. “We don’t have to beat him. Just slow him down. Keep him out of the next graveyard, everyone!”
Fire and lightning exploded across the back of the monster, making it roar as its unprotected flesh cooked and sizzled.
I wanted to tell them to stop, that they were just making it stronger. That they were making it tougher, but for all of my intelligence, for all of my genius, I had no idea how to get it’s attention without hurting it. Had no idea what ratio of attacks, what speed to hit him from. Not a clue how to win this fight.
It wasn’t my job to win, I swallowed. This wasn’t Negalli. This wasn’t Colton.
This was Patrickson. This was taking blows until there was nothing left to take.
And we’d measure our winnings in how many people were left standing.
Or we wouldn’t measure them at all, when the bombs came.
The back arched up as muscles fell to the ground, briefly exposing a rib cage, swollen internal organs quickly peppered with knives and blades, with hiss of fire, pepper spray, mace, gas, fire, bullets, everything around, everything we could muster, until surely it must be reduced to gristle and bone.
It hunkered down and brought two massive arms in front of itself, and roared. Both arms came out and struck the stone around it. Shrapnel like a grenade.
I was on the ground before my mnd could catch up to what was going on, Hands on top of me, the invisible arm outlined with chunks of stone and dust. Monstrous, with fingers that stretched into pinpricks.
Then the dust disappeared as the arm moved and it was invisible again.
Just like that, our firing squad had been reduced to shreds. When we’d scattered, we’d cut down on our line of sights, cut down on our available target. While the gravestones were our cover, it also covered the beast.
Heard the nose of broken bodies from where stone had struck them, distracted them. Saw a few struggling to stand back up as bloody wounds decorated their bodies. Saw their body armor chipped in places, standing back up.
Sutures opened up from the beast’s body in a million places, flecked with teeth and bloodied mouths, and the entire thing swelled up like like a sweltering furnace, taking in air.
Then, while half of my squad was prone, it started screaming.
This wasn’t the scream of a mortal creature, this was something guttural and destructive. Blood bubbled forth as freshly formed vocal cords tore under the straight, bubbling up in dripping gore down quivering displays of muscle.
Windows shattered in the distance, and my ears went useless, blipping in and out of functionality while it screamed the sound of god himself, the almighty whirring above to hear the cries of his children for help. The beast drowned out even that as it stood up, flesh materializing from the marrow of its bones.
And I was farther away from him than the retired capes.
They were on the ground, screaming. Blood poured from ears, eyes, cavities. Like they had heard the voice of a being greater than them, and it had demanded they cease resistance. Demanded that they stop fighting.
And the beast walked past them, ambling forward as it sought out energy, desperate, hungry.
And kept walking forward, step by step, past us.
Ignoring us as it walked towards the graveyard that held Faraday.
Mind spiralled as I struggled to think of what I could do to stop it. What we could manage to get its attention.
“Hey! Fucking idiot,” came a voice I hadn’t been expecting. Mary stepped into view from the other graveyard. “You’ve gotta go through me!”
The first of the reinforcements had arrived.
And her muscles swelled as iron ripped through her skin, and suddenly she was IronMarrow instead of a smaller woman.
“Gale!” Mary screamed out as she picked up a marble slab that weighed over a ton and brought it down on top of the creature’s head. “Sorry I’m late.”
Both the head and the slab.
There was silence as both halves of the tomb fell to the side, and we were treated to the brain stitching itself back together, a cell at a time, the hot wet mess of bone knitting together.
Though I could see a number of retired heroes who had been reduced to broken bones and gasping lungs, staring sightless ahead.
“If this isn’t my damn grave,” Mary said, watching the beast as it stared at her. “Then I’m a fucking cat, and I’ve got a hell of a lot more lives to throw at this.”
Wet slits opened on the Lost Boy’s back. They bled copiously through the mass of veiny white tissue and then filled in, in the way that cells split and regenerate, into a series of piercing black eyes.
So it could see us.
So it could keep an eye on the rest of us.
Didn’t want to think about what it meant that it was smart enough to realize that.
“Careful, it’s watching us,” I called out to those who were standing back up.
Mary took a monumental swing with an ironclad fist, her skin thin as paper and blood making each of her fingers slick.
How long had it cost her last time? How long would it cost her this time?
The beast shuddered as the meaty bladed arm slammed through muscle and tissue, snapping sinnew like bungee cords and shattering bones.
But this wasn’t an enemy that could be beaten by brute force. On some level, I knew that.
“Now!” Mary said, her fingers caught in the muscle, trying to keep it open, keep his healing factor at bay.
Another volley of knives and electrical blasts. No fire this time. Another person down, unable to rejoin. Dead perhaps, head split open from the screaming.. Across the armored carapace of it’s back, the knives studied, the shocks crackled. It held up to a couple of blasts, and then a knife caught hold in the bone like casing and chipped.
Then the chip expanded into a crack, and the beast let out a sickening roar, and the eyes opened wide, pupil dilating.
“No matter what happens to me, Gale,” Mary said, as the beast took a staggering step forward. “Make sure my children are safe.”
“Don’t say it like that!” I shouted back at her. We were all half deaf at that point. Shouting was the only way I could think to communicate.
“Twenty six minutes,” Hands called, looking down at the Com. “We’ve gotta keep this up.”
Another step back, as the beast pushed against her. Metal strained as Ironmarrow kept her feet dug in, tried to be the immovable object she’d been in her twenties.
The muscles on it’s stomach healed entirely, and the beast seized Mary by the trunk.
I heard things crack and pop that weren’t meant to pop, but she was a woman made out of metal, so there was also the siren’s song noise of rending steel, and then her bladed fist, festooned with hooks and knives made from her own blood and marrow, came down on the beast’s head.
It sliced inside.
We hadn’t been aiming for the creature’s head. It was tiny in comparison to the rest of the body, and we’d figured it would just keep moving after it healed.
But the hand went through the skull and out the other side, and the noise didn’t stop from where it was crushing Mary’s ribs. Didn’t stop as she struck again and again. Slicing through superhuman bone and carving out chunks of viscera and organ. Then her arm was stuck. Her iron muscles screeched from the force and torque she was putting on them to wrench them free, and yet… they didn’t move.
Heartbeat thumped in my chest.
We both knew what was going to happen next if Mary couldn’t get free. We’d all seen it devour people.
I had one move. I hoped it would work.
I hoped it might save her.
The grenade that bounced off of what had used to be the Lost Boy’s skull went off, and a convenient gust of wind tugged the cloud of the creature’s eyes. Capsaicin normally has a debilitating effect for humans when introduced to the eyes.
For the love of god and anyone else that was watching, I hoped that it would have a greater effect on the creature than it did on Colton.
The beast tossed Mary to the side, perhaps recognizing the situation, and the eyes wept hot blood, just barely visible through the smoke.
Then it roared again, and again, and then…
Fissures appeared across its stomach and back, where armor had once been. Then opened up, complete with teeth. Again. Regrown from the last screech.
Then they screamed. Dirt shook up from the ground and marble cracked and crumbled. Mary’s body twisted.
I didn’t look at Mary after that. Couldn’t afford to look at her. I had hoped… Had hoped that maybe we wouldn’t pay for this in human lives.
It was naive. Naive to think that. Naive to think I had a place on this battlefield.
But I was willing to trade my life for thirty minutes.
Like a mantra, it stuck to me, how far I was outmatched.
But even a train can be stopped if enough bodies lay on the tracks.
I just wished… I didn’t know the bodies I was going to put there.
Wished I wasn’t on there. Wished Colton wasn’t on there. Hands. Mary. Everyone here.
The storm rumbled overhead.
“Gale!” Came the voice of the electric user. “I used to work with your dad. Do you think you can help me with some lightning?”
It was a far shot. I wasn’t even a tenth of the storm master my father was, and the storm wasn’t quite breaking yet, but…
Perhaps a bolt of nature’s lightning could stop it. Stun it. Blow out the nerves.
It might have to take awhile to regrow nerves.
Now I knew why they had to firebomb the area this creature had came from. Understood why Mobile might be eradicated.
“I just might be able to, if we can keep it blinded, keep it still. Keep it from stepping forward.” It was raining. It was Mobile.
It took another step forward, and Hands growled like a wild cat. Her arm seized a tombstone, making it float in front of her, and then she tossed it like a frisbee at the creature’s regrowing head.
It splattered like a pool of water, brain matter flowing this way and that, and then it slowly turned, eyes and mouths and screaming singing air whistling through lungs we could see in the rapidly closing holes littering it’s body.
“Twenty four minutes,” Hands said.
“Just… Twenty four minutes.” I whispered. “All we have to do is make it twenty four more minutes.”
“Where is it getting all of this energy from?” Colton asked.
“It’s been eating the power of everything it finds. Human meat, electrical wires… It must take a ton of energy to keep up the regeneration,” I theorized. “But I don’t know how much energy it has right now.”
“It’s going after Faraday.”
“I don’t want to know what it’ll be able to do if it gets at that,” I said, exchanging a quick glance at Colton’s face. He was paling quickly.
“All out, Colton.” I repeated.
“All out, Gale,” He returned, gritting his teeth. Color flushed his face again, and I saw, written in his face, a willingness to face death itself, if that was what he had to do.
That we would not be stopped by the logical impossibility of our situation. Colton’s hands spread apart, and a great blade appeared in them.
“Good enough to slice through bone?” I asked.
“I’m sure of it,” Colton swore.
Then the beast took a lumbering step towards us, and I knew we’d scored a victory. It had stopped moving towards Faraday, perhaps seeing we were some greater threat than it’s loss of energy.
Wasn’t much of a victory if it led to our deaths.
But we weren’t playing to win.