The moment was interrupted by the passage of a number of large blades where the wall had been bare minutes ago, with only the return of Colton’s knives to stop them from sinking into the side of my head.
Breath in, breath out, turn to face the things in the night. Barely lit by reflections, their surfaces shifted to the beat of the framerate in my eyes.
“Better be a damned good idea,” Cassandra swore, nimbly picking up what remained of an ancient CRT monitor and bringing it crashing, shatteringly down upon the darkness. No power to it, nor completed circuits, so just a spray of glass danced across her off red skin, decorating it with proof of valor. “We don’t have time for anything else.”
I breathed in, clenched my left hand, and ignored how much it hated what was about to come out of my mouth.
“Colton, back into the elevator.”
He shot me a look and stared. “What?”
I looked at him and asserted every inch of the commander I had been to him before. “Make handholds. With your knives. Make sure they’re good enough to climb on.”
Colton paled. “That’s a lot of knives to maintain.”
“I’ve seen you maintain them while you’re being electrocuted,” I returned, sternly. “You can handle a couple of people climbing on them.”
“You’ll cut yourself,” Colton pointed out.
“Do you have any better ideas on how to scale thirty feet before we’re eaten alive?”
Colton’s only reply was to throw a handful of knives into the darkness. One sparked off of a length of spine sheathed in iron, revealing a collection of knotted fingertips and braided elbows, squirming things not meant for human sight.
But we were heroes, not mere humans, and we had places to be that didn’t involve getting devoured by eyes without night.
“Association idiocy,” Cassandra dismissed, drawing a knife out of her pocket. Segmented and folded, she snapped it back into a stable positioning with a few flicks of her thumb.
I needed to get something like that.
I needed to fight something with actual lungs (my mind wondered how they moved, how they breathed, in that queer green place that reeked of Green Towassa, but there wasn’t time to think of that, and there wasn’t room in my head to think of it either, there was only the moment and the moments in between) and maybe I’d be useful again.
But I was useful now too.
I swallowed and hefted the survival hatchet. “To the end?”
“You’ll owe me and the rest of my squad drinks when we get out of here, you know that?” Cassandra asked. “And call me Cass.”
I could do that.
Cass turned and dove into the darkness.
Colton gave one last spray of knives, barely avoiding where my air sense told me Cass was standing, and crept into the elevator shaft.
It wouldn’t be a ladder, but by god it would have to do.
Cass emerged from the darkness, her clothes ripped, and laughed like a mad-woman. “Are all of your missions like this, Gale?”
“Mostly,” Colton reported from the elevator. “I don’t really think we’ve done anything that wasn’t soul crushing or almost got us killed.”
“Ouch,” I muttered sourly, shooting a glare at the elevator.
Air sense roared in my ears and I barely ducked out of the way. A long rib bone, tapered, splintered, spiked, swished through the air just over top of my hair, and I dove in and under it, as the rest of the beast crashed down around me. Thousands of ribs like the legs of a centipede clicked and hungrily gnawed at the debris. Remember me, they demanded. Remember me and take me with you.
But I could not remember them for my head was full of Gale. It brought tears to my eyes to see them screaming out that they wanted something that badly, to see that humans could be driven to such madness, and yet there was no point in pretending I could take anything except me back with me.
The axe remained pressed into my right head, and I slashed out at the beast overhead, hollow and bony as it was, and brought a staggering crippling blow towards a rotten heart.
It squelched and bled like an open sore, painting the ground black with sticky ichor.
Then the ribs slammed around me, and dug hungrily into the ground.
The sense of the air made no sense for a brief moment, for the spine opened up into an endless series of crawling teeth, gnashing against one another, and the ribs became the legs of a great toothed creature, crawling, and I could taste the vines that drink dreams, staring up at the creature that would devour me and take my name and use it to patch the nest of the eggs it had laid last summer and would never come to term if it didn’t steal the identities of a hundred more creatures. Digested into contextual remnants, grammatical fragments, destroyed ink rotting beneath that ultraviolet sun that painted the eternal-
The knife slammed into the side of the beast’s head and Cass barked out another laugh, drawing the blade back again and again. Blood gushes from bare bone in defiance of logic and painted her front with it, delicate stripes of red ink, a mixture of jam and happenstance as reality decided to follow the scary bitch with the knife rather than the paltry desires of a mere manufactured god, and she struck again and again, bones shattering, breaking, splintering, long stick hemoglobin decorating her knuckles.
Then she hopped off of the darkness and kicked it off of me, and I could breath again.
“Get up,” Cass demanded. “You’re not dying here. I refuse to let anyone that that madman fucked over die to random bullshit he stirred up in his madness.”
She grabbed me by the arm and hauled me up properly, found the hatcher (when had it slipped from my fingers? I couldn’t remember) and slapped it back into my numb fingers before standing me up properly.
The darkness thrummed solid for a moment, in reverence of Cass’s feat.
“Colton?” I wheezed, rubbing my armor and hoping my lungs would start working while I felt the gouges in the hardened plating. “Status?
His voice came, miraculously, from higher in the shaft. “Progress. Halfway there. Keep it up…”
Cass’s breath came hot and heavy from the darkness, and she scowled, hissed, seemed more like a hunting angry cat than the red skinned patrol member.
Not much longer until even she would be affected by that strange green place where the sky whispered of eternal life.
But not for long.
I had another flare.
It occured to me that I had had another flare at some point. I had burned one off to ward off the monsters earlier, but I had brought at least two. Or maybe more. I couldn’t remember, not when my head reeked.
But where had they gone?
My fingers dug against my side where my supplies had been kept and came back with the torn remnants of ruined cloth.
Eyes widened, I threw out the air and felt around.
In the darkness, about a hundred feet out.
That would buy us time, and yet…
“Cass,” I said. “I have an idea that might get us more time.”
“I have a set of waterproof flares.”
“Excellent,” The daemonette hissed, turning to look at me. Then she paused, her eyes clearly working in the darkness more than mine. “Where?”
My eyes flicked out into the distance, and the greedy exuberance left her all at once. “You’ve got to be kidding me, Gale.”
“Gale’s not kidding, Gale never kids when it comes to stupid ideas,” Colton reported, breath drug through teeth in a hiss.
“Look, if we rush it together, we can make it,” I said, marking the distance mentally.
“Without the light, there’s nothing keeping them from doing whatever they want,” Cass pointed out.
“You contextualize the left, I’ll contextualize the right,” I said. “We won’t have to manage it for long, just long enough to get to the flares. After that, the light will trap it in whatever form it is in at the time; way easier to deal with.”
Then I paused, and tore my com from my side and flicked it open. A meagre light blipped from the screen.
“There. Use that,” I said.
I hadn’t really had the ability to use it like a proper light, not while my left hand was out like it was, and not when I needed the right to navigate. Besides, with my air sense, it was like having an extra pair of eyes.
Cass touched it a few times, then got it to emit a brighter light.
“We’ll be back,” I said, shouting to Colton.
“You better be back,” Colton snarled. “This is damned hard.”
“Thanks!” I threw him a jaunty wave (not that he could see it) and then I gave Cass a nod.
My air sense swung through the air and hovered around me. For a moment, again, I was Gale, the hero. For a moment, Cass had my back.
“Can you see the target?” I asked.
“Just barely with this light,” Cass replied. “You ready?”
“As ready as I’ll ever be,” I groused. “This is such a stupid plan.”
“It fears the light like it fears our senses,” Cass muttered. “Like all things of the Association, it does most of the work in the darkness, hiding.”
“Go,” I called.
Then we lunged into the bed of evil and sin, of broken bodies and tortured lives, doctorates, depravity.
Foot step after footstep, my air sense dragged alongside of me, etching into a wall of whirling bodies and flesh. What had divorced them from the realm of sense? What world did we live in? Were we still on the planet earth, or had we advanced to some place stranger? Where monsters lurked in the shell of man and things squirreled away into the darkness?
“Right,” Cass grunted, and then her hip slammed into mine and I nimbly leapt over a shattered table in the dark, grabbing her hand and tugging her with me.
“Left,” I returned, as fangs gnashed down from the rim of an arm growing out of the socket of a skull, muscles forming dextrous little fingers to jam more down a colossal throat made out of the regrets of the past.
“Down,” Cass shouted, and then she hit the ground, sliding forward across the scruff of her pants.
My skin guards had just barely less friction on them, and we slid forward as hell opened up in front of us and danced in a wiregrass forest fire, a roaring tide of invasive species and hellish abominations.
Then my hands grasped onto the bag and tore it open. Found the flares.
Fumbled with them as the beast’s breath danced across the back of my neck.
Then it erupted into flame.
Contextualization occurred in a heartbeat. Several heartbeats as the monsters adjusted to the ideas in our heads.
A monstrosity of peeling flesh and muscle that had never truly been human stared at us now. The entire place danced in the red fire in my hand. Dozens of eyes in every human color blinked and stared, slowly roasting under the luminous rays.
“There’s just one of them now,” Cass muttered. “What a day to not bring a few extra shells.”
I breathed out a few times, lungs aching for me to breath in but nothing could prepare me for the smell in the air, harsh, thick, ammonic.
“It’s fine, there’s just one and we can see it,” I said, unable to catch my breath.
Cass made a clicking noise in the back of her throat. “Well, actually. Now we just need to deal with it.”
The beast’s massive head slid to the side, and from the oppressive pile of rotting meat it slid forward, legs slapping woefully against the ground.
“There’s nothing saying it can’t kill us now that we know it exists,” Cass said, helpfully, slapping her feet against the floor and springing to her feet.
I tried about the same deal, but all of the energy in my body had already been spent the previous few hours trying not to die.
Cass grabbed me angrily by the shoulder and threw me to the feet. “Better hope your boyfriend has done good work.”
“We’re not dating, we just live together,” I muttered.
“That is a bizarrely specific denial, I was trying to lighten the mood,” Cass noted, then pushed me, gasping.
I slid forward, and then took a step forward, only for Cassandra to race ahead of me. I glared at the back of her uniform, and the wind whistled, giving me the energy for a few more desperate steps, and then momentum was on my side, and I vaulted up next to her.
Every bit of debris on the floor was a land mine to my exhausted body, the adrenaline had faded into the bone tiredness of certain death.
“Colton!” I wheezed. “How much longer?”
“A few minutes!” He hissed back.
We didn’t have a few minutes.
The flare tumbled bonelessly out of my numb right hand and hissed against the ground. The beast behind us rumbled ahead, gnashing too many teeth, and I wanted to cry I was so tired.
“We’ll make due,” Cass shouted shooting me a tired and frayed grin. I shot her one in return as best I could, but I could barely get my lips to twitch.
Too much usage of my powers in that dark place, too many things whizzing through my head, and the beast was behind me, impossible to think about except for the endless rows of teeth.
Then Cassandra vaulted her way into the elevator shaft, the Com slipping into her pocket. I watched her scrabble for purchase until one of her hands clenched at the handle of a knife dug into the side of the sheer stone. It screeched in warning, but it held long enough for her to vault up to the next one like an olympian.
The red skinned woman was in the peak of fitness. I’d be jealous of her, if…
Well, fuck it, I was jealous of her, she had more energy in her hands than I had left in my entire body. To be in shape like that would probably take another few months of frantically trying to keep Mobile afloat. Filing paperwork and making people look dramatic hadn’t exactly prepared me for much, and while I’d been training desperately to make up for that, in the end I was still months away.
The light of the shotgun mounted light illuminated just the bare minimum of the knives embedded in the wall, but that was just enough for Cass to haul herself up, light on her hands, springing up and up and up.
Cass hadn’t tumbled down a few stories until grating, and hadn’t had her teeth kicked in.
Behind me, the monster called out my name and I thought it sounded like I’d always imagined my mother sounded like, and I vaulted forward to the other side of the elevator.
It felt like seconds went by while I lunged through the air, where my brain misfired and repeated those hesitant moments against and again, and then one of the hilts caught me across the chest and I tumbled down down down.
Head swam, but even with my eyes closed and the lights minimum, my hand lashed out and caught the hilt of the last knife embedded in the wall. It squealed and gnashed angrily, and up above Colton squeaked out a strangled noise.
My arm snarled out a desperate pain from stretching clenching muscles, but I refused to let go, fingers bleeding from the edge of the dull knife jammed against it.
Colton had done his best to form handholds.
“I said I wasn’t ready yet!” Colton shouted.
“Close enough,” Excelsior said. Looking up, I could see their lights making a mess of the far wall, turning my night vision into a haze of day and flesh faces.
Then Colton was swung up and back into the top floors.
“Careful,” Cass warned, as she bounded up and up and up, hands firmly finding each hold, each knife.
It reminded me of basic training, of the damned rock walls and how many times I’d fallen. I’d memorized the damn things, brute forced it until my arms ached in memory.
But that had been with two functional hands and several harnesses.
The beast behind me let out another tsking noise, like knives being sharpened and a parent’s disappointment.
I was tired.
I was nearly beaten.
But I could pull deeper.
Because thinking that far back made me remember the disappointment that would etch itself across my father’s face at how stupid a death it would be to die here in the final hours of this stupid outing.
Could picture it across his grand face, the face I’d mythologized, the face that I had wanted to be for so many years. To fly into the heavens.
My teeth grit.
“Come on Gale, not much longer,” Cass said, overhead. “You can do this.”
My left hand ached in agony, but with a grunt, I swung my right arm up, elbows bent, and slammed my hand into the hilt of the next knife up.
It hurt, but I had felt pain before. Then I swallowed, because behind me the skittering had stopped.
Instead the air had turned moist. Hanging like I was, I chanced a glance behind me.
The maw of the beast opened, decorated with eyes and tongues and gnashing whispering words.
Things I didn’t want.
I only had a few seconds, but I had another idea, something stupid, like always, but…
I threw out my left arm and smashed myself against the side of the elevator, and the high grip surfaces on my boots caught for just long enough, just long enough so that I could…
And swing my right arm up again to catch the next holding stone.
Catching my breath was impossible but it burned, trying to lift up all of my weight with a single arm.
My air sense screamed that the end was near.
But my plan wasn’t finished just yet. Swallowing hard, I clenched my eyes shut and counted down. It was mostly blind, but I knew that from where it had been, and how fast the monster had been moving…
I dropped my hand from the handhold and fell.
Only a foot, and then onto the top of the opening jaw of the beast.
My eyes snapped open and I felt all of the dozens of eyes of the beast upon me, and then I leapt, propelled up by the massive jaws, and snagged the knife a few rows up.
And then finally snagged my feet onto the rows of knives below so I could climb normally. My right arm bled in relief from cuts, but the burning pain of supporting my lugging body was gone.
The blunt knife cut into the surface of my boots, but there was no time to relax, not here, so I hauled myself up, leaping nimbly from hand hold to foot hold, using the cut into the rubber of my shoe for traction.
Then hurled myself to the side as the beast lunged up and took out the right half of the foot holds. Colton cried out overhead.
“Made it!” Cass shouted, the light flickering above.
One down. Just me left.
I stared at the best as it sank back down for a final attempt to take me into the putrid masses, the scrabbling rotting brains of dozens of doctorates calculating with bestial precision how best to kill me.
Then I spat on the row of eyes as it passed, and reached up to the next handhold.
Which wasn’t there, because the beast’s tongue had tore it free, bloodied and bleeding.
Deep breath, then a look at the light overhead. Acceptance of the task.
One more move, then. There weren’t enough handholds left.
“Colton, one more thing,” I said, my voice raspy. “I need you to throw them into the wall from where you are.”
“They’re… not going to hold,” Colton reported.
“Just do it,” Hands said, her voice shrill. “Gods be damned what the fuck is that thing?”
I closed my eyes and waited, hearing the pitiful squelching of the beast below, and then scrabbled for purchase on the next knife. It held for just a brief second, but that brief second was all I needed to swing my feet up to hit another perch, and another perch, and then the knife came off in my hands and fell far below next to the shotgun.
Breath in, Breath out.
Then I turned to face the open elevator door, pinned open by Excelsior’s blade. I could make that jump. I could make it work.
I just had to…
I braced against the wall of knives, my teeth gritting.
“What the hell are you…?” Excelsior asked, eyeing me. “You idiot.”
I slammed my feet back against the wall and leapt, kicking off. The air whistled in my ears as I threw everything I had in stealing another inch, another inch, just another inch.
And my finger tips caught the bare edge of the open surface, and then the rest of my body slammed into the sheer concrete walls.
The impact tore the breath from my throat and left nothing behind but the dead tiredness that had been rimming my thoughts for the last hour.
“Give some room and get Gale up here already!” Cass demanded, reaching for me.
I hurled my right arm up and got my elbow up, and then Colton squealed as the rest of the knives came down all at once.
Then something cold, wet, and blooded wrapped around one of my trailing legs.
“Fuck,” I said, my mouth snapping open. It tugged once, and my clothes ripped until the bladed tug touched my skin and dug in.
Colton lunged for me and his fingers touched my skin, and then I was over the edge. Falling. Falling.
But oddly, Colton was moving the same speed.
My eyes met him, wide and wild, and then he grabbed my arm, tugging it tight to his chest.
“Not this fucking time,” The knife master swore and we jerked, crazily, falling down the shaft.
My words were strangled, because we came to an abrupt stop, clacking out heads together.
“Got him,” Hands barked, and then we jerked as the beast below got a taste for my blood. It wept, hot and furious, down the exposed skin of my leg and dripped across the tongue. I could almost feel it squirming into my resisting skin and muscle.
Colton’s eyes were locked onto mine when I snapped open my mouth.
“If you tell me to drop you I swear to god you’re not getting any celebration cake,” Colton threatened.
I had been about to tell him that very thing, but the thought of cake and not being in the shaft any longer won out over nihilistic enlightenment, so instead I grabbed one of the last daggers in the wall, and jerked down, twisting my leg up.
And Colton’s mind knife slashed through the beat of the tongue. A terrifying moment where it held and the beast lashed against it.
And then a meaty tearing noise.
And Hands tugged us back up the elevator shaft, finally free.