“So you grew up around all this stuff,” I whispered to Sean as the two of us picked our way around the lake. We were moving slowly and using the treeline as cover, hopefully avoiding the attention of the creatures inside the cabin in the distance. “Can I ask you something about how all this works?” While speaking, I pressed my finger into the slight depression in the staff where the small button was and held it. The black ends switched to a softly glowing blue as they began to charge up with kinetic energy.
The Hispanic boy turned his gaze away from Vulcan, who was busy sniffing ahead of us. His voice was equally quiet as he nodded to me. “Yeah, sure, what do you wanna know, Flickster?”
I waited another few seconds, scanning the shadows ahead of us before whispering again. “Let’s say someone graduates from this place, does their job for awhile, then decides they want to settle down. Is being a teacher the only way they can do that, or is there like, a retirement type plan or a way to stop?”
His response was to raise an eyebrow at me. “Jeeze, are we that bad to be around?” He teased. “Been here for a month and you’re already planning how you can retire and abandon us forever.”
Rolling my eyes, I shoved my fist against his shoulder. “It’s not like that. I’m just wondering how you guys deal with that kind of thing. I mean, there’s gotta be people who just want to settle down, right?”
“Right,” he agreed before shrugging. “And there’s two kinds that fit that deal. There’s the guys that want to forget about all of this, who want to be done with it completely. And there’s the ones that are still willing to fight if something comes to them, who’ll protect an area or whatever but don’t wanna go actively looking for trouble. My uncle’s one of those last ones. He settled down in Bogotá. That’s–”
“Capital of Colombia,” I replied easily. “See? Some of us paid attention in Freshman geography.”
“Must’ve had a cute teacher,” he shot back. “I can see it now, little fourteen-year old Flickster, sighing dreamily over the dreamboat professor while he meets her eager stare with a smoldering gaze.” He deepened his voice as though speaking as the hypothetical teacher. “’Ms. Chambers, if you remember nothing else from this class, I pray that you retain this simple fact. The capital of Colombia is Bogotá.’”
Feeling a slight flush cross my face, I shoved him. “Jerk. What about the other type you mentioned? The ones that don’t want to have anything to do with any of this. What exactly happens to them?”
Smirking at the shove, Sean nodded. “The other kind go through the process to be released from being a Heretic completely. They give everything up. All the power, all the weapons, even the ability to recognize Strangers. They surrender all of it and go back to being ordinary people. They run away.”
Before I could respond to that choice of words, or ask him anything else, we reached the edge of the treeline before the open yard that surrounded the monster-infested cabin. Crouching down there, the two of us watched as dark shapes continued to move past the curtained windows in the distance. By that point, we were close enough that I could hear noises from inside. The chamrosh were communicating with a series of trills and whistles. If I didn’t know better, I would have guessed that there was a flock of birds inside the cabin, except for the fact that the songs were way too deep to come from any avian species I’d ever heard of. They were bird whistles produced by canine lungs.
“Thanks,” I said mostly under my breath. “Really needed that distraction so I wouldn’t pee myself.”
Sean’s hand patted my shoulder briefly. “You’ll be fine. Just try not to get too distracted daydreaming about that cute geography teacher and his soulful gaze. We need your head in the game.”
“I do have this big stick,” I reminded him while giving my staff a shake in his direction. “And thanks to Avalon, I’ve gotten a lot better at using it. You probably shouldn’t give me any reason to think I should practice with it some more.” Then I activated the communication pin that I had attached to my shirt under the jacket, broadcasting to the rest of the group. “Team. Sean and I are in position.”
“Give us one minute,” Avalon’s reply came back a moment later. “We had a brief delay.”
Eyes focused on the cabin, I spoke again. “Team. Delay? Is everything all right?”
It was Columbus who answered. “We’re fine. Just ran into some deer and had to skirt around them so they wouldn’t spook. Figured that might hurt this whole sneak attack thing we’ve got going on.”
Sean and I continued to watch the cabin, listening to the too-deep bird noises while Avalon and Columbus maneuvered themselves into position. While we were waiting, I carefully extended the staff out of the treeline, touching the end of it against the ground while keeping my finger on the button. As I held the tip against the dirt, that faint blue energy bubble appeared before turning almost invisible.
I whispering to Sean. “Don’t let Vulcan run off and hit that thing when this goes down.”
He gave me an easy, charming smile in return. “No worries. When the shit hits the fan, my little buddy’s gonna be right here.” Rubbing the mechanical dog’s back, he asked, “Ain’t that right, pal?” Vulcan gave a soft woof of agreement, and Sean patted his head. “Damn straight.”
Finally, I saw the figures of our two teammates carefully glide through the bushes across the yard from us. They settled into position before Avalon reported that they were ready.
Columbus gave a brief wave our way, then turned his attention toward the cabin itself. I saw his hand move to his face to adjust his special goggles. Then his voice came through. “Okay, I’ve got their heat signatures now. There’s five of them all right. Two in the back near the door there, one up in some kind of loft area or something, one still up by the front window that Scout’s locked onto, and another one below the cabin. It looks like it’s in some kind of basement or cellar area.”
“Team. Any other life signs at all?” I asked. Yeah, we’d been told that there were no civilians here, but it was a good idea to make sure for ourselves instead of just expecting the adults to be perfect.
“Nope, just those five,” Columbus replied. “I can’t see any civilians, or the sixth monst—err, Stranger.”
That was worrying. I wondered where the last one was. According to Professor Kohaku, the last one was the primary target, which meant it was bigger, stronger, faster, and probably smarter than the others. And we still had no idea where or what it was. That was a bad way to start this thing, even if we did manage to take out these five. It still left the main threat both safe and aware of our presence.
From the silence, I guessed that Avalon was thinking along the same lines. I could barely make out her motionless form crouched in the bushes in the distance, head turned a little as she thought it through.
It felt like forever, but in truth, only about five seconds had passed before the other girl spoke through the comm. “We hit them anyway. Better to get rid of these five and then have one to focus on than risk it using them as a distraction or reinforcements. We put them down and whatever’s left is on its own.” After another moment, she continued laying out the specific plan. “Scout, as soon as you see a chance for a shot, take it. Everyone else, when the glass shatters, be ready to move. Porter and I cover this side of the cabin and the front door. Chambers and Gerardo cover that side and the back door.”
It was kind of funny. No one had asked Avalon to be the leader, but no one really questioned it either.
Deveron, on the other hand, hadn’t seemed interested in much of anything thus far. He’d stayed behind with the twins. Which I supposed was good if something came after them before we could get back there. On the other hand, I had my doubts that the jerk would be that much help if it came down to it.
One by one, we agreed with the plan. Sands, of course, spoke for both herself and her sister. I had yet to hear Scout say more than two or three words, save for the occasional whisper I managed to make out.
Then we waited, tense and ready, while the silent girl lined up her shot. The annoying, disconcertingly guttural bird songs from inside continued. It sounded like the creatures were arguing with each other, bitching back and forth across the cabin in their own language. Maybe they were looking for something? That was my best guess, though I had no idea what they could be searching the cabin for.
As ready as I thought I was, a soft yelp still escaped me as the window abruptly shattered under the impact of Scout’s bullet. There was a heavy thud from inside that was almost instantly followed up by the kind of scream that couldn’t be produced by human lungs. It was an awful wail, an evil sound that was quickly joined by more as each of the creatures took up the same cry. My teeth tried to grind reflexively under the horrible noise as it penetrated my brain and made it hard to think straight.
Avalon’s warning came over the comm, louder now that stealth wasn’t a concern. “Here they come!”
Sure enough, I saw one of the half-dog, half-bird figures lunge through the side window. It looked like a combination of a dalmatian and a raven, the last black spot on the neck rising up into the bird’s feathered head. With a horrible screech, eyes locked right on our position, it charged.
Sean was ready. His hand grasped the hidden handle near his mechanical canine’s rear, hauling the thing up while Vulcan’s body shifted and transformed. The head flipped around and locked into position to reveal the six barrels before Sean took a single step out of the bushes, putting himself right on the edge of the kinetic mines that I had laid. Smirking, he pulled the trigger. Those half dozen barrels began to spin up even as the chamrosh ran straight for us, screeching its bloodlust.
That cry was overtaken an instant later as Vulcan roared to life. I had no idea how fast the thing fired, but dozens of shots tore into the approaching creature within seconds. The sheer noise and power of the gun in full firing mode was terrifying to witness. The monster, whose appearance had been so terrifying seconds earlier, was knocked to the ground by the force of the gunfire. Chunks of flesh were torn from the thing while it howled and rolled, bullets ripping into it unrelentingly.
And yet the thing kept coming. With a defiant, furious scream, it launched itself forward through the hail of gunfire. Unfortunately for the monster, that leap put it right on my nearest invisible mine. The force of the concussive explosion blew one of the thing’s legs off while it was hurled backward, and Sean took advantage of the chance to lay waste to it some more, ensuring that it wouldn’t get up again.
Belatedly, another sound reminded me that I was supposed to be an active participant in this fight, not just an onlooker. My head snapped up and over just in time to see another of the chamrosh racing toward us, focused on Sean as the boy continued to lay waste to the first creature. This one looked like a really big mastiff mixed with the head of a particularly nasty-looking vulture.
“Okay, Flick,” I whispered to myself. “You can do this. You can do it. Now!” Raising my voice on the last word, I leapt forward and over the mines that I had laid. My staff came flipping around, the motion as reflexive as Avalon had promised it would be after the hours and hours of practice. As the big dog-bird lunged, I put myself in between it and Sean, lashing out with a blow that took the thing right in the side of its head. The force of the blow, aided by putting my body’s motion behind it, staggered the monster very briefly. It had been so focused on getting at the boy with the gun that it hadn’t even noticed me until my staff smacked right into its ugly face.
I expected to be afraid, and part of me was. But mostly I was hyper-focused on every little move that the creature made. There wasn’t enough time to focus on the fear and anxiety. The thing recovered quickly, snapping out with that nasty beak in an attempt to grab the end of the weapon that had hurt it.
Snapping the staff back out of its way, I pivoted around on my foot, snapping the weapon around as I turned so that the full force of my motion was transferred to the staff just in time to smack down onto the top of the chamrosh’s lunging head when my spin brought me back around to the front.
The blow knocked the monster down onto its forelegs a bit, and it made an ugly, whistling growl at me.
Honestly, the thought of what might happen if that monster tore into me was a very distant worry. Strangely, the worry that sprang to mind the most was what Avalon would say if she saw me do something wrong here and fuck up after all the work she’d put into helping me train. It was a weird, completely out of place thought considering the danger of the situation. I was in a fight, possibly for my life, and my brain was worried about impressing my roommate.
Shaking that off, I took a quick step back before faking a quick swing with the left end of my staff. The monster fell for the feint, snapping its beak that way even as I reversed course, lashing out with the other end while holding the trigger to charge up the kinetic force to get it ready for the next blow.
By that point, the monster was practically ignoring the strikes against it. Beyond its initial surprise, the simple fact was that my strength wasn’t enough to do much damage to the same kind of thing that could even somewhat stand up to the kind of punishment that Vulcan was unleashing onto it. I had to do something more impressive if I was going to stop this thing.
With that in mind, I waggled the staff out to one side, teasing the monster shamelessly. “Here, Fido. Here you go, boy. You want the stick, you want the stick? Come get it, boy. Come get it!”
The creature took the bait, lunging at the offered weapon. As it moved, I snapped my staff out of its way before dropping into a roll that moved me out of its way and around to its backside. Once there, I whistled once, then gave a sharp thrust forward with the weapon.
Spinning around almost blindingly quickly, the chamrosh snapped its beak out, catching hold of the end of my staff before holding tightly with a menacing growl.
In response, I smiled. “Now that,” I announced to the thing. “That you shouldn’t have done.” Then, before it could react, I triggered the energy that I’d been saving up in the staff.
The resulting blast, focused down into the monster since it had taken the end of the staff into its beak, blew through its internal organs. The concussive force was centered and directed into the chamrosh, and its body was thrown backwards a dozen feet before crashing to the ground. It didn’t move again.
Immediately, I felt that same embarrassingly good feeling sweep over me that had come when I had killed the peridles. Staggering briefly, I barely contained the murmur of pleasure while shivering. God, was absorbing the power of Strangers always going to feel that good? And speaking of absorbing power, what had I just taken?
Before I could figure that much out, Sean’s voice cried out a warning, “Flick, move!”
Two weeks ago, my reflex would have been to look that way to see what was going on. After the time I’d spent learning from both Avalon and Professor Katarin however, I threw myself as far to the side as possible, hurtling into a roll along the dirt.
It almost wasn’t enough. Something… massive had come right up behind me, lunging down to the spot where I had been crouching. I felt fur and muscle as a leg the size of a tree trunk smacked into me. Pain erupted down my side and I was knocked sprawling to the dirt.
With a yelp, I rolled over to stare up at the thing that had nearly run me down. I looked up… and up… and up, until my eyes finally found the new monster’s head, towering high above me.
It was a wolf. But not just any wolf. This thing was so pants-wettingly enormous that I could have stood upright in its open mouth. It was larger than the cabin the other monsters had been hiding in.
“Guys…” I managed to whimper from my prone position while the monster salivated above me.
“I’m gonna need a bigger stick.”