The general theory to ranged combat said to aim for the center of mass. Hitting a human-sized target at range was surprisingly difficult for the average person, and the head was an even harder target to reliably hit. In an urban setting, missing meant that there was a stray bullet on the battlefield, endangering civilians. The center of a person’s mass, the torso, was far easier to aim for. If they wore a vest, it would at least hurt them, most likely break some ribs. You might not kill them, but you could at least put them down.
Parahumans changed that game a little bit, especially Brutes. Bullets might not do anything to them. Oddly, in those situations, shooting for the head was preferable. Brains were rarely as well-protected as the rest of the body, and a high-calibur rifle round could cause a concussion, even if it didn’t penetrate. If that wasn’t possible, then there was the chance that you could slow, distract, or otherwise hamper the Brute by triggering certain automatic reflexes.
Even if it didn’t actually harm them, bullet fragments in the eye would still cause a person to blink rapidly and tear up to try and expel the foreign object. There were responses hard-wired into a person by millions of years of evolution to protect their heads, too. This could be handy.
Unfortunately, against this thing, these rules were completely inadequate.
I watched as 35 individuals unleashed everything they had at the monster before us. The amount of energy being launched in its direction was beyond my ability to calculate on the fly. A Thinker might be able to do it, or maybe a team of hundreds of scientists in a lab using the best computers. If it were a way to convince everyone to do it in a controlled environment.
The massed attacks slammed into the beast. At its size, even at this range, center of mass wasn’t an issue. It did make things more difficult for me to observe, though. From what little I could tell, the damage was negligible. If there was any. I saw some scorch marks, but that was it. Brilliant. Perfect. I could honestly claim to be a little afraid now and nobody could blame me.
I’d get right on that fear here in a little bit.
“How’d we do?” Sarah asked.
I lowered my rifle, my other hand gripping the shaft of my halberd nervously, and turned to the Blasters. “On the next mark, everyone aim for the head!” Sixty-seven percent chance of helping. As an overglorified spotter. I didn’t mind; at least I was going to be useful.
“That bad, huh?”
If she had another smart remark, it was cut off by the Dragon’s Teeth firing their artillery. My body rocked from the shockwave of so much energy being released at once, the edge of the ridge crumbling a little. I raised my rifle again to sight, but my view was cut off by the explosions, the glittering directed energy, and everything else. Again. I had the feeling that this was going to be a pattern.
When the smoke cleared, I could make out a gash that was dumping what had to be gallons of liquid onto the ground. My lips curled into a smile… which quickly fell as the gash closed up in only a second. My mind couldn’t even begin to contemplate the gigajoules that had to have been put into that one attack, and it had accomplished effectively nothing.
And the damn creature seemed to be moving faster now for it. I was suddenly glad that my suit absorbed all liquid.
Normally, I would have let the fear graze the surface and then fall into the void. Now, though, I clung to it. I needed it again. Not for long, just for a moment, but I was about to put myself into a unique situation. Knowledge was power, and I was going to need it.
The Movers with offensive powers were engaging it. The Blasters capable of flight or rapid movement, the Dragon’s Teeth swarming it with their suits. Brutes and Strikers were moving to engage rapidly. My jaw set as I hit the communication button on my arm band, somehow keeping my voice a cool even. “Fliers aren’t giving the Blasters a window of attack. Can you clear the airspace so we don’t have to worry about friendly fire?”
There was a pause, and I took the opportunity to look at Sarah. “Full core, my signal.” Her helmet nodded once and she leaned back, drawing her arm back. I looked to the woman next to us. “You might want to move. I have no idea what’s going to happen.”
She stared at me for a moment like I’d grown a second head, but quickly complied. I really didn’t have any idea. Full strength for Sarah was holding back significantly. For all that I knew, she might rip her own arm off with this. Not an idea that I relished, but there wasn’t much point in holding back any more. We had to hit it with everything we could. Whatever community it was threatening had to be protected.
“Jordan, you’ll have a window in a moment, but I can’t promise it will stay for long. Take it while you have it.”
“Blasters,” I yelled. Already I was kicking the fear into overdrive again. I was glad that I wasn’t raising my rifle — it would have been trembling. Instead, I kept my eyes on the those in the air as they did their thing. I needed to gauge this perfectly.
“Aim!” My heart rate was skyrocketing. Each breath was quick and shallow, and my muscles were tightening. I watched as the people in the air suddenly parted like a curtain, giving us a clear view of the monster approaching us. Quickly, I looked to my sister and covered my ears.
“Fire!” And with that, I let go, dropping as far as I could force myself and letting time dilate in my own mind.
It wasn’t enough. Even with all my senses primed entirely on her, it wasn’t enough. One moment, Sarah was pulled back, muscles tense. The next, she was leaning forward, her arm extended. I knew from experience that as she’d reached the full extension of her arm, her hand had snapped from open to shut, but I couldn’t see it.
Instead, I saw for the briefest of moments an explosion, a ball of destruction the size of a doorway in front of her fist. The shockwave hadn’t even begun to form before it was gone, leaving a strange nothing in its wake. And in the next moment, less time than an eye blink, that nothing was gone, leaving only a streak that went from her fist towards its target.
I didn’t even have time to engage the hair’s focus necessary to collapse the time dilation. Instead, it was collapsed as the shockwave formed and hit me, knocking me over. Apparently, I hadn’t braced myself.
A moment later, the woman was helping me up to my feet. I didn’t bother looking at her, my eyes were going to the damage we’d done. I hadn’t known what I’d expected, but once again, we’d made a gash. Once again, it closed up just as fast as we’d made it.
I’d read that Endbringers healed at an amazing rate, but even they took damage and kept it. At least, until you struck deep enough. The inner areas, near their innermost skeletons and the so-called cores, were tough to nearly insane degrees and healed with equal amounts of insanity. There were reasons why Scion was the only one to destroy one of them.
But for the surface to heal this quickly… Annoying.
Instead, I took a moment to think about what I’d seen with Sarah’s power as I retrieved my halberd. Normally, she propelled a concussive charge through some sort of sonics that weren’t completely understood, directed by her motion. It was possible for nearly any part of her body, even her legs and head, but she got the most out of it when she could snap her hand closed. She could even make an arc, but the power was usually far lower than a straight-on attack. What I’d seen was different. Perhaps a ball of plasma, perhaps something else.
If it was plasma, it made sense for the sudden void to be a form of compression, or maybe just an enhanced collapse of air where the… Where the…
My mind couldn’t focus any further on it at the moment. But I remembered the important parts, and focusing on it meant that I had a good chance of remembering later. I hoped. It would come in handy, if we survived.
I looked to Sarah. “You okay?”
“Yeah,” she said as she tested her arm. “No pain at all. I’m kind of surprised.” So was I, considering how she triggered. Then again, she also had more practice now. “I can keep going, no problem.”
I nodded, looking back out to the battlefield. The people on foot were engaging now, attacking the legs. How had they made it over the trees so fast?
The answer came to my mind as soon as the question had hit me. Probably a Shaker allowing them to. Fair enough. I wanted to check and see how they were doing, but I had to focus on the Blasters for now.
“Get ready for the next attack!” For all the good we were doing with them. With how it was healing, I wouldn’t blame anybody for having low morale over it.
“Jordan,” came the voice from my armband. “Keeping you aware. We’re going to have the Teeth attack just after your people. Thinkers say if we can keep a wound open, we can break its healing ability.”
“Rodger,” I said into the device. I immediately turned to address everyone. “We may have a way to keep it from regenerating. Once again, focus fire on the head! Any Blasters capable of continuous use of their powers, keep firing until you absolutely have to stop! When we wound it, focus on that wound! Now ready!”
Once again, I covered my ears, but this time I made sure to brace myself for Sarah’s shockwave. “Aim!” I waited, watching the fliers. We weren’t getting a sweeping opening like we were last time — I had to wait for it.
The moment it opened, I screamed. “Fire!”
Everyone let loose, and I immediately wished that I would have taken another couple of steps away from Sarah as her shockwave made me stumble a bit, filling my ears with a whine. Now, at least, we could add Shaker to her power ratings.
As soon as there was an impact, the Teeth fired their artillery. At the same time, though, Sarah started hopping in place, violently shaking her hand. As the ringing in my ears subsided, I moved over to her. “You okay?”
She nodded a little. “Hot!”
Which meant that the last blast had probably made her fist warm, but she’d thought she could tough it out. Stubborn. I grabbed the canteen off of her belt and ripped the top off. As I began to pour the contents over her steaming fist, I looked back out to the creature. The wound was larger than it had been, and the flyers were helping to keep fire on it. Excellent.
Even better, there was what appeared to be a glowing green circuit board starting to grow over the legs each time the beast took a step. I watched as a foot rose more slowly before the the pattern snapped and disappeared. Good. If we could decrease its mobility, we could hit it more continuously.
But the water only lasted for so long. I screwed the lid back on, looking her in the faceplate. “How’s it feel?”
“Warm still. I don’t think-”
Her words were cut off as a bubble of water a little larger than her head formed in the air in front of her. I turned, finding a lean man approaching. “Your abilities are better spent-”
“This is my power,” he stressed. “That’s all of it. I’m tit useless for the most part, but I can at least do this for you.”
Sarah jammed her fist into the water, nodding. “It’s helping.”
My eyes, though, were more focused on the way that the bubble had rippled when she put her hand into it. I reached out and tapped it a few times, watching the way that the ripples spread. I wished that I could feel how hot or cold it was through the water, but I couldn’t help but grin a little as I looked to the man. “Does it hold up if you put soap in it?”
He blinked at me before nodding. “I mean, not very well, mind you, and I lose a bit of it before I can get control back, but I can mostly keep it in shape.”
“Surface tension,” I said, smiling. “Can you hit the creature with it? Do you have the range?”
“Barely, yeah. Why? It isn’t going to do any extra damage.”
“Surface tension in a confined space can cause a lot more damage. No time to explain in detail. As soon as she’s ready, jam it in a hole and-”
A deep groan that made the earth rumble drew my attention back to the battlefield just in time to see the creature slam its long, flat head into the ground. Almost instantly, the head thrust forward an extra ten feet, hitting another person.
“Bob Bilber deceased,” my armband informed me. “Jenjer Gella deceased. Mike Kelley deceased. Jason Mercado deceased. Sue Webber deceased…”
I found the button to mute the notifications. I didn’t need to be distracted by that. Not now. With that much mass, it didn’t matter if it was a glancing blow; it would still be driving enough kinetic energy into a person that it would kill all but the hardy Brutes. At the best case scenario, their limbs would just be torn off and they’d suffer damage to their internal organs from hydrostatic shock.
Better to think of them as instantly dead.
I watched in horror as the head began to arc from side to side like a giant scythe as people scrambled to get away. A few more went down, making my heart sink even further. This was only going to get worse from here on out. If it had taken the hits to get people into range for that, then there was the possibility that it had more tricks it could pull on us.
Sarah would be fine for now, so instead I pulled away to call out. “Blasters, change of plans! Target, right leg, on my mark!” I took a deep breath. “Ready! Aim!” The monster’s swinging head produced incredible power, but it made the timing predictable. Once I had it, I turned to watch the Blasters. “Fire!”
Taking in 30 people using their powers at once was difficult at best, especially with the insanely concussive blast that Sarah was putting out behind me. There were, however, two Blasters that stood out to me. I hurried over to slap one whose power seemed to be a form of purely sonic vibration on the shoulder. “You, with me.”
He didn’t need to be told twice. I jogged over to another Blaster who formed a bolt of what appeared to be superheated metal that she launched. Unfortunately, those bolts of liquid metal hit a moment after everyone else’s. But I could use that. Once we were there, I turned back to the sonic Blaster. “Can you time your shot so that it meets with hers right as it hits?”
The woman opened her mouth, then closed it. There was confusion on her face, but she slowly nodded. “I can try.”
“Learn fast,” I said. I still wasn’t comfortable doing this, issuing orders like this. It felt wrong on every level, but it was something that I was bearing for the time being. We had to do this, we had to stop this thing. So if I had to scream at people and get them to synchronize their powers, I would.
“You fire when I give the order, and you fire about a second and a half after.” The theory was that either it would give the liquid metal a boost, allowing it deeper penetration, or would cause it to splash, hopefully widening the wound. If it worked, then we’d be doing that much better. If not…
“Ready!” I moved away, giving the two some space. “Aim! Fire!”
This time, I could watch Sarah fire again as I looked back down the line. I could also see as the impacts hit the leg, tearing it open more than we had the head. Almost instantly, the Teeth fired their artillary.
“Bullshit!” someone with sharper eyes than myself yelled. It only took me a moment to process why — the impacts had been short of the target. They were right on point, over where we’d made our wound, but the impact had happened twenty feet too short.
“Barriers,” someone else said. They made it sound like a curse word; probably bad experience with barriers in the past, but right now I couldn’t blame them.
“Doesn’t matter,” I barked. “Keep firing on my signal! Aim!” I paused, more hoping that Dragon would give me some direction than anything. When she didn’t, I felt a small wave of sadness. “Fire!”
As the Blasters let loose another volley, I hurried back towards Sarah. By the time I made it over, she already had her fist in another ball of water. It sucked that using her power at its full potential, while immensely powerful, meant that she was hurting herself. Yes, it was more common these days, but there was something here that was bothering me. Something that just wasn’t right.
“Skip this one,” I said quickly before addressing the others. “Aim! Fire!” Instead of watching how they did, I turned back to Sarah. “How’s the hand?”
She pulled it out of the water, offering it to me. “Getting bad.” The knuckles of the armor were blackened. Maybe they hadn’t gotten red hot yet, but it was apparently enough to overpower the armor’s temperature control layer. There was something that I was missing, though. The Manton Effect said that most of the time people were protected from their powers. A barrier user couldn’t cut themselves in half by creating barriers inside of bodies, that sort of thing. While heavy triggers tended to not have the Manton Effect, Sarah’s hadn’t been that heavy. It had barely counted as a heavy trigger at all.
So what else was causing it? What could be causing her to burn herself like that?
“Jordan. Making you aware. Thinkers believe that the barrier is fueled by damage done to it, but it takes a moment to charge and expends itself each time it defends. It can also only defend in one limited area. Therefore, the Teeth are going to attack the opposite leg.”
That… didn’t make perfect sense, but I was going to go with it. Thinkers would know better than I would. Besides, I didn’t have much of a choice. But that did give me the burst of inspiration that I needed.
I ran my hand around Sarah’s forearm, disconnecting the glove from the arm and working it off. It didn’t peel off like mine thanks to the modifications to it, so it took a little effort. “Alright,” I said, glancing up at her. “Next punch, full core.” I turned and started to walk away, glove in hand. “Blasters, ready!”
“Jordan,” she called after me, a tinge of fear in her voice.
“Aim!” I glanced back to see her quickly setting up again. Good. Once the head reached the center point of he swing, I shouted again. “Fire!”
Everybody did their thing, unleashing untold amounts of energy and force again. Again, we hit with enough force to rip open a hole in the creature’s leg. I didn’t look back at Sarah, instead waiting for the head to swing back to the right, revealing the left leg. The Teeth unleashed the artillery, which impacted ineffectually with the barrier.
I gave my sister a quick glance. She was holding her hand up and looking at it for a moment before pulling back for another punch. Good, I was right. “Aim!” She was protected from that aspect of her power, but her suit wasn’t. The heat never quite reached her skin, but despite how comparatively thin the armor was compared to other Tinker-built armor, it was enough to hit part of the heat of the blast. That heat was being transferred to her hand, causing the problems. “Fire!”
I turned back to the beast just in time to see the work of the Blasters tear our previously-created wound open even more. The healing effect had been slowing down, maybe by using the energy for the barrier. A small tip of the scales in our favor. The fact that the Strikers and Shakers were slowing it down so much was another boon to us.
But it wasn’t enough. Those giant forelegs, even with the damage we were doing to the right one, were still dragging it forward slowly. It was almost a quarter of the way to us by now. If it had more tricks, and I wasn’t doubting that we hadn’t seen its full array of them, we were slowly on our way to being screwed.
“Where the hell is Valkyrie?” the para that created the water bubbles asked angrily. “She’d come in really fucking handy right about now.”
“At the fallback point,” said a nearby woman. The water para, myself, and a few other nearby paras turned to look at her. “What? Legend discussed this in his speech!”
Everything snapped into quick focus. The fact that there weren’t as many people on this battlefield than there should have been. The fact that we weren’t as organized as we should have been. The relatively low number of Dragon’s Teeth here. The lack of leadership for the Blasters.
This wasn’t the main offensive. This was them trying to poke and prod at it, trying to figure out what it was capable of. We’d fall back to where they were setting up the main offensive once we had enough details, regroup under actual leadership, then hit it hard with everything that we were capable of. People were dying out there to try and gather information.
“What fallback point? We missed his speech!” someone yelled.
“Oh,” she said softly, suddenly looking sheepish. Others were looking equally sheepish. It was probably the job of those who had been at the speech to pass along that vital piece of information. Brilliant. But we couldn’t go back in time to fix mistakes like that. All that we could do was push forward and make the best of it.
“Focus,” I barked. “Eyes on the goal, and that goal is hurting this thing. If we can take it down before having to fall back, all the better. Now get ready!” Not enough people were budging. I raised my volume. “Blasters! Ready! Or else more people are going to die!”
Now they moved a little more. “Aim!” I had to focus on the monster again, as getting them into gear had thrown off my timing. “Fire!”
Again, that hole in the leg tore open a little more. Excellent. Sarah turned back to me and flashed me a thumb’s up. Her hand wasn’t getting worse. I could accept that. At least I’d done one thing perfectly right in this mission.
I watched as a pillar of earth rose from underneath the creature, lifting it a little. The pillar didn’t last long before it crumbled, though, slamming the creature back to the ground. It was enough, though, to slow it down a bit.
I glanced at the water bubble para. “Jam your bubble in that wound. No matter what, someone here’s going to hit it with their power, and-”
My words were cut off as I watched that head dip a little lower, connecting with the ground. Chunks of dirt and shattered logs went flying… right at us. “Get down!” People scrambled, some running blindly, others diving to the ground. They moved, not in any way that would directly help them but in panicked instinct. Some screamed, a waste of breath. I took a deep breath, watching the incoming missiles of earth, rock and wood.
The debris slammed into the ground, some at the ridge, some beyond. One man had his leg sheered off by a branch. One woman screamed and fell, but I couldn’t see what hit her. I felt a lance of pain in my cheek, but it was a minor concern compared to others. As soon as the worst was past us, I hurried towards the fallen man, already fumbling for where I’d stashed my med kit.
I’d barely gotten to him when that head slammed into the ground in the opposite direction, continuing another swing. Once again, debris went flying. I only watched for a minute before instead hunkering down over the man. I could guess by the trajectory where it was going, and I didn’t want to watch. I had more important things to focus on.
I barely got the large syringe of gel out before I heard the slam and squeal of metal tearing. Shouts rang out before there was a loud explosion. The artillery was down. I applied the gel to the wound in haste, not bothering to look back. Our big hitter was down, out of combat. People up here were panicking, taking random pot shots, or trying to run away.
The line of battle was broken.
Sarah appeared next to me as I moved to reload the syringe, one half full already in her hand. Had she already treated someone else? Good girl. I stood to let her take over, hitting the communication button on my armband. I already knew it did nothing, that Dragon was already listening in, but it felt appropriate. Right.
“Artillery has taken a hit, and the morale and cohesion of the Blasters is broken. By the time we get organized again, the battle will be on our doorstep. Please advise.”
I didn’t bother to look back at the monster. Instead, I called up the display on my armband, spending a moment to filter all of the icons, removing the people who were fine and the people who were dead from my display.
Thirty people were listed as down. I didn’t even want to think about how many more were dead. I hoped it was a lower number, but right now I was doubting it.
After a moment, Sarah was next to me, looking over my shoulder. “What’s on your mind?”
“We’re most likely going to get the order to fall back soon. If Valkyrie is at the fallback point, most likely she’ll use portals. Quick and efficient.” I frowned a little, pain lancing my cheek. “I’m worried about the people who are downed, though. Evacing the people back here will be easy, but those closer to the monster… I doubt that they’ll get anyone to drag them through a portal. They’ll most likely die if they don’t get medical attention here soon.”
“We can do it,” Sarah said quietly. I looked up at her. “Your teleportation thingie still work?”
Oh. I’d forgotten all about that. We probably should have returned it to Tattletale, but things had been weird when we’d returned to New Brockton. My hand moved to my belt, flipping the cover open. Nothing. I hit the power button, and the display lit up. 80% power, but it needed to spin up the internal components. That would still be enough to get people somewhere.
I was about to respond when Dragon’s voice spoke up. “Valkyrie will soon be opening portals to the fallback point. Shakers, continue to slow down the threat but prepare to move. All other units, fall back and prepare to retreat the moment that the portals appear. Shakers will retreat as soon as everyone else is clear.”
They were minimizing losses, trying to keep as many people for the main fight as possible. Good, I didn’t like the idea of us throwing away people’s lives if it wasn’t necessary.
Sarah’s hand touched my shoulder. “I can get to the wounded faster, collect them up to a single point. When you catch up, we can go to Mother’s Hospital.”
It was like a weight had been lifted off my chest. Everything else had been fluff. This was how we were going to make a difference. I gave another glance to the device; the ready light was already green. I nodded once before hitting the button on my armband.
“Dragon, we’ve got a teleportation device. We’ll collect up the wounded, then teleport them to Mother’s Hospital. If there’s enough of a charge, we’ll try and regroup with you.”
There was a pause before Dragon responded. “Valkyrie will open a portal for you once you go to Mother’s. Good luck out there, and stay safe.” Finally, something was going our way.
The ridgeline began to shift and move, raising even higher. I looked to the side, and saw that a ridge was forming further around. At the same time, the ground ahead of the newly forming ridgeline was dropping, forming a crevasse. The higher the ridgeline grew, the wider and deeper the crevasse grew. Probably whatever shaker had created the pillar of earth had greater versatility of their power than just that and was no applying it to creating a barrier.
“Blasters,” I barked. “Form up on my position! We evac together! Bring the wounded!”
“Should I go now?” Sarah asked.
I shook my head as I grabbed her arm, setting the armband so she could find the wounded. “Wait for the portals to open. People may grab nearby wounded and bring them through. Once people start going through, we’ll storm.”
I glanced up to see the fliers pulling back. This entire situation was FUBAR, but it wasn’t anybody’s direct fault. I could tell that. Chevalier and Legend had trusted people to pass along necessary information. The Wardens, by all rights and logic, should have been able to pass it along to everybody without fail.
Nobody, though, had taken into account that all of the Wardens old enough to have a position of authority probably suffered from PTSD of some level or another. Even if they hadn’t fought an Endbringer, they probably had a lot of heavy memories playing through them at the moment. Even worse, the small cellular structure of the Wardens that made long-term cohesion possible turned situations like this into something none of them were very familiar with.
I couldn’t blame any of them for being overwhelmed.
The younger people, the people who hadn’t fought Scion or had been born after Gold Morning, they were also horribly out of their element. They were looking to others for support and guidance. Being called to general support against an S-Class threat had probably made them shake in their boots. With the people they looked to for guidance stymied, they would flounder.
Even worse, most of the mercenaries were individualistic. Perhaps they had a small group they got along with, but none of them probably considered being part of a group even a fraction of this size. They’d fed off of the disorganization and discomfort of everyone else, keeping them from taking charge either. I couldn’t blame them, but it had left Sarah and I in a bad position.
Chevalier and Legend were from the old world, had become heroes of import in the old world. They still thought in the old world ways. People who at least had an idea of the proper procedures for handling Endbringers due to the constant threat. I couldn’t fault them for not having thought about it.
My thoughts were interrupted as a window appeared in thin air beside me. No, not a window, a doorway. Valkyrie was using one of her ghosts to create a portal. I immediately stepped to the side, motioning for people to step through. I couldn’t quite comprehend what I was seeing, the way that there was an entire different location that could be seen from a hole in the air. Really, it didn’t matter in the end. Do what needed to be done now, figure it out later.
Fortunately, my directions weren’t really necessary. I felt kind of stupid; people were hurrying through on their own just fine, some helping the wounded, one man needing a pair of women to carry him. At least I was trying to help while also staying out of everyone’s way.
When half of them were through I pointed at Sarah, then back to the ridgeline. She raised her fist in confirmation before turning and sprinting. She wasn’t as athletic as I was, but as she reached the lip of the ridge and began her leap, both of her arms snapped down to activate her power, propelling her higher and further than she normally would.
There were practical reasons for why we’d launch each other while swimming.
As soon as I saw her going up I turned and made my way through the portal. Time was of the essence for me now. It took me a few moments to find my quarry and push my way through to the older Warden who had smiled at me earlier. In my periphery, I was barely aware of the wounded being taken away. No doubt, Valkyrie would change up what powers she had active to heal them.
But none of that mattered now. Instead, I had to focus on what needed done. “Hey,” I said quickly, reaching out to put a hand on his shoulder. “Wait up.”
The Warden stiffened for the briefest of moments before turning to look at me. “Yeah?”
I held out both my rifle and halberd to him. “My brother is Chris Abrams, and he’s staying in New Brockton.” The man flashed me a confused look. We were wasting precious seconds. “Listen. I want these back, alright?”
As he was processing everything, I hurried beyond him, further into the fallback point. There were so many more people here, all set up. Wardens were policing lines, ordering folks into place. It was so neat, so organized. It wouldn’t last long once the enemy got here, but it… Longing scratched my being, but I forced it down. I had too much work to do and not nearly enough time. Feel later, act now.
“You’re crazy,” my nameless Warden called out to me. Apparently he’d figured out what I was doing.
I spun around and offered him a small smile. I wished I had some funny remark to say, but nothing came to mind. Instead, I leaned forward and began to sprint. I needed the space to pick up speed — I didn’t have the advantage that Sarah did. Plus, I had no idea if Valkyrie would close the portal on me.
I had to go wide to avoid slamming into people, but as soon as I was clear I was able to pick up speed again. My knee burned, but not enough to slow me down as I passed through the portal. As the ridge quickly approached, my shoulder and chest began to ache. Didn’t matter. All that mattered was the leap.
As I reached the ledge and became airborne, I realized a few very important things. First, I hadn’t had time to gauge just how wide and deep the chasm had grown. I’d accounted for a good ten feet wide, but it was closer to twenty. The ridgeline had grown proportionately as well. That meant that the landing was going to suck, if I could make it.
The second thing that I realized was that I really should have left my pack with the Warden. It would have cut down on some weight, allowing me more speed and a larger arc on my jump.
As I made that leap of faith, I found myself mostly unconcerned. Instead, I had that blissful feeling of being airborne again, riding the wave for a brief period of time. As my landing point grew ahead of me, I was struck by an odd sense of awe. I’d helped in fighting an S-class threat, perhaps an Echidna-caliber threat, standing side by side with Wardens. And now I was charging closer to it.
I should have been scared, but instead I felt a strange combination of calmness and relief.
That feeling passed the moment I hit the ground, a good five feet away from the low edge of the chasm. Instantly, I rolled to help redirect the energy from the fall into more forward momentum, before coming back up to my feet. It was easier to come to a stop from running than it was to just land and stop.
As soon as my forward momentum petered out, I raised my arm and checked the display. Sarah had somehow gotten four of the people together. Good, that gave us a rally point. Unfortunately, there were a lot fewer icons than there were the last time I’d checked. Crap. I oriented myself towards the nearest single icon and began to run as best as I could. With the trees on the ground, finding solid footing was hard.
I idly wished that the Shaker, Trump or whatever that had allowed the Brutes, Movers and Strikers to close the gap without worrying about the trees had stuck around. But if wishes were that easily granted, I’d already be a Warden by now.
I heard the distinctive sound of Sarah’s power and turned to look, just in time to see her flying through the air. As she neared the ground again, she punched, propelling her further, faster than she could have run. Faster than I could run. No wonder she’d gotten so many people collected up so quickly. We’d discussed the possibility of her using her power like that, but we’d never gotten around to testing it.
Looks like we could officially tack Mover onto her classification set.
Unfortunately, that threw me off and I knew it. I raised my arm to look at the display again and frowned. There were no icons in the general area that I had been running towards. Another person had already passed on. A part of me wanted to believe that if I’d been faster, we might have saved them. I desperately wanted to believe that, but I knew it wasn’t true. They’d have died no matter what we did.
I found the next closest icon and took off. I’d barely gotten twenty feet before I stumbled, my ankle flaring in pain. I ignored it and pushed on again, as hard as I could. My right knee felt like a hot poker was being jammed inside of it, barely giving it an edge over my left foot. Both of them could go to hell for all I cared. I might be tearing both up even worse, but I could make it. I had to. I didn’t have a choice.
I was maybe a good five feet away from the woman before I tripped over a tree and came tumbling down to the ground, banging my head against a branch. My vision speckled as I pushed myself back up. Didn’t matter. Didn’t matter. It became a mantra in my head. I’d push the flesh as hard as I could, until it fell apart on me, just to get this done. That’s what meat was for.
The woman was unconscious, not a good sign. Her arm and leg were mangled pulp, but it was a small favor that whatever had caused it wasn’t pinning her to the ground. But there was also the risk of internal injuries, injuries to the spine, or any other number of things that could be made worse by moving her. Not that it mattered — my choice right now was to move her, or let her die here. I hadn’t come here to make that decision.
After a quick check to find where the icons were, I lifted the woman up as carefully as I could and began to hurry towards the rally point. I watched as Sarah almost effortlessly carried two people back, set them down at a tree, and then launch herself off again. I tried not to feel jealous, but it wasn’t easy. Not with how my body was complaining, not with how much I was slowed down by the remains of the trees.
Not that the monster was making things any easier. Whatever the Shakers had done to slow it down hadn’t lasted, and it was moving at a surprising pace now. We didn’t have long. Sarah would already be back by the time I got there. I’d probably have just enough time to set the woman down, make sure that everyone was in range of the teleporter, and send us off. The window of opportunity would be tight at best.
I looked back down at the ground to focus on my footing. The more that I could focus on that, the more I could avoid debris, the faster that I could move, the sooner I’d get there. My heart was hammering in my chest. I could barely hear the sound of drones in the air over the rushing of blood in my ears.
Focus. One foot in front of the other, as fast as you can. Focus. Step tall to avoid the tree. Doesn’t matter. Get there, get out. Doesn’t matter.
The sound of the monster’s head impacting against the ground made mine snap up. I only had the briefest of moments to see Sarah standing on a tree before she was suddenly flung off of it by a wave of shrapnel.
My heart froze in my chest for a moment. Only for a moment, though. I put my head down and began to move again. Somehow, the pain in my knee and ankle were gone. All the pain was gone. All that there was in me anymore was need; I needed to get there. I needed to see.
By how fast I was moving, I knew that it had only taken me five minutes to get to the tree and set the woman in my arms down, but it felt like it had taken forever. I scrambled onto the thick trunk despite the rumbling of the ground under me, and looked down.
Sarah’s form was prone, laying on top of other injured people. A chunk of wood almost as thick as my forearm had punctured her armor and was jutting out of her gut. Already, it was slick with blood. Her eyes were open, she was breathing, but she wasn’t seeing anything.
I swallowed hard, flipping open the controls for the teleporter without looking and hit the button.
I looked down at the Tinker tech device on my hip, my eyes wide. The display was blank. Nothing at all.
Experimentally, I tapped it, then rapped on it harder. The display flickered for a moment. Desperate, I pressed my hand against the casing, and the display flickered back to life. 76% power, but it needed to spin up again.
The damage the wildlings had done to the casing. Crap.
The rumbling of the ground stopped, and I looked up. Fifty feet tall had been awfully impressive when I’d been on the ridge. Anyone in their right might would have felt a tremble of fear as they’d looked at it. As I craned my neck to look at this monster, though, I didn’t feel any fear. Only a sense of calm. A sense of calm, and my thumb hitting the activate button.
I turned to look at it better, ignoring the whimpering and moaning of the injured. Such strange calmness. There was a part of me, a large part of me, that wanted to charge this beast. To kick and punch and bite it. It wouldn’t do any good, I knew, but the urge was still there. That urge was tempered, though, by the urge to stand right here. I squared my shoulders back as I looked up, having to squint as the sun was almost in my eyes from this angle.
As my hand pressed against the casing, my thumb hit the activate button.
At first, I wondered if it even registered our presence. If it was aware that we even existed. I couldn’t see any sensory organs. I couldn’t even see a mouth.
But then that head swung away from us. From me. And then it began to arc towards us. It wasn’t the fastest swing, but with how massive that head was, there wasn’t much that it had to worry about. With how massive it was, it occupied most of my vision as it drew nearer.
I didn’t know why I dived for Sarah. There wasn’t a point. If it grazed me, then I’d be in as bad of shape as she was, if not worse.
My thumb hit the button, and then I knew nothing.