At least Scout knew what power she had picked up from the Seosten woman in the other building. As the swarm of the zombies made their way across the room toward the small group and the spell behind them, Scout kept trying to shoot faster to keep up with all the targets that presented themselves. Then, as if she had flipped a switch, she could suddenly think, move, and react much faster. It was like she had been thrown into fast forward, able to aim a shot, fire, aim another shot, fire, aim a third shot, and fire that as well before she normally would have finished aiming the first one.
She could only keep it going for a brief time, but in that time, she took down fifteen zombies with precise head shots. It was like that video game that Shiori had been showing her where you could use the occasional turbo boost to throw the world into slow-motion and auto-aim at your targets.
But it wasn’t enough. The zombies kept coming. They poured through every vault door, and immediately joined the horde in rushing for the spell that was blocking communication with the outside world. Even with Columbus, Sean, Tristan, and Professor Tangle adding their own firepower, there seemed to be no end to the creatures. They were killing them, but the zombies didn’t let up. More and more kept appearing, dozens at a time, even as they were mowed down just as quickly.
Beside her, Tristan took aim at a large clump of the creatures with his cannon, charged up a powerful shot, and let loose with it. The blast bowled through them and more beyond. But it was no more effective than anything else had been at actually stopping more from appearing.
Sean and the two Vulcans were laying down a dizzying hurricane of suppressive fire together. Sweeping their firing arc from one side of the room to the other constantly, they were doing the most to keep the flood of zombies from overwhelming everyone. Columbus’s goggle-blasts and Tristan’s cannon blew through the larger groups, and Scout picked off the sneaky lone figures that tried to go around.
Meanwhile, Tangle dealt with the ones that slipped through the cracks, sending waves of her ghost-like cars and other things summoned with her weapon to crash into them and knock the collective group back once more.
They were killing the zombies as fast as they could, and the flood wasn’t getting anywhere. But it also wasn’t going away. There seemed to be an unlimited number of the creatures that just kept pouring through. And eventually, Scout and the others were going to slip up, get tired, or run out of firepower. It was looking like the zombies would win this war of attrition through sheer force of numbers.
“Block the doors?” Scout blurted the suggestion in between firing three more quick shots, two of which struck home. If they could somehow close the vaults off, it could give them a break and stop the reinforcement zombies from coming through.
“With what?” Sean asked, even as he used Vulcan to tear through another handful of the relentless monsters. Hovering over his right shoulder, VJ fired a few shots of his own as if for emphasis. “We don’t have anything to block them, unless Tangle can?” He glanced that way with those words.
Tangle, for her part, grimaced while shaking her head. “Sorry, the only thing that comes to mind is–” She stopped talking for a moment, extending her flashlight-like weapon to project an elephant, which charged across the room to trample a dozen zombies under its feet. “The only thing I can think of is breaking the portals, but we’d need to be inside each vault to do that!”
“Scout!” Tristan blurted, charging up another shot to fire. “Scout, your rifle! Use the scope-portals to see into the vaults.”
“He’s right,” Tangle realized aloud. “Scout, forget shooting the zombies. We’ll handle them. Focus on getting a view into each room. Look for runes above and to both sides of the door and hit them with whatever you can to break them. Guys, hold the line until she manages that.”
Taking a half second to put a hand on Scout’s shoulder and squeeze, Tristan urged, “Don’t worry, you’ve got this. We’ll cover here.” Suiting action to words, the boy simultaneously fired a charged shot from his cannon that blew through a handful of the undead creatures while also producing a knife with his other hand. A quick flick of his wrist sent the blade through the eye socket of another zombie that he’d barely been glancing at. A moment later, a spell on the knife ignited the zombie’s head and blew it apart.
Trying not to think about how much pressure this suddenly was (or about how it felt to have Tristan’s hand on her shoulder even under these circumstances), Scout pivoted away from the group. She let them cover her, dropping to one knee while bringing her rifle up. Taking aim through her scope at a random bit of wall near the ceiling, she fired a scope-portal about midway there, above everyone’s heads. Then she switched her view to seeing through the portal, adjusting to point it toward the nearest vault doorway. From that position, she could barely see the entrance, firing to create another scope portal in the doorway, just above the heads of the zombies.
From there, it was a simple matter to make one more scope portal inside the vault itself. The whole place was literally filled with zombies. The room was the size of a football field, with the creatures packed in like sardines. No wonder they kept coming, if every room was like this one. The only thing slowing them down was the size of the doorway they were coming through.
Time to end that. Adjusting the scope-portal to see back toward the vault entrance, Scout zoomed in on the doorway. Behind her, she could still hear all the fighting going on, but had to force herself to ignore the distraction and just trust that Tristan, Columbus, Sean, and Professor Tangle could handle it.
Sure enough, there were lines of runes along the top and sides of the door. As Tangle had said, now she just had to damage it enough to break the spell creating the portal. For that, Scout flipped two switches along the side of her rifle, switching to her explosive rounds. Those weren’t as plentiful as the regular ammunition that her rifle basically generated on its own, but they would do the job of damaging that wall a lot better.
She took a breath, slowly let it out while ignoring all the fighting going on mere feet away from her, and fired the first shot through the portal. Shifting the scope slightly to the right, she fired again, then repeated it a third time after another shift. All along the spell where her shots struck it, the rounds exploded into miniature balls of fire.
That was enough. The damage to the spell disrupted it, and Scout saw the doorway leading into the main room suddenly disappear, leaving behind a blank wall and cutting off that horde of zombies waiting to emerge.
Quickly, she looked up from her rifle, glancing toward the door from this side. Yes, the first vault was cut off, stemming one source of the monsters, at least. Unfortunately, that left a lot more to go, considering there were six vaults along on either side.
Oh well, that just meant she had to get busy rather than continue patting herself on the back. Quickly disabling the scope-portals she’d used already, Scout got to work setting up a new line into the second vault. This time she had a better idea of what she was doing, firing each viewing portal in rapid succession to get a good line on the spell there. In the background, she heard Tangle telling Columbus and Sean to focus on one side, and felt someone bump against her as they adjusted their stance. Ignore it. She had to ignore it. They would handle the problem here in the room, she just had to do her job. Even if the thoughts of what was going on with her mother back in the main building, or her sister downstairs, were just as distracting as the zombies right here were.
Shutting out every other worry, Scout took more shots at the portal spell for the second vault, destroying it and cutting off that room as well. Through the scope, she could see the confused zombies stumble up against the blank wall where the doorway had been.
Two down, ten to go. Faster. She had to be faster with it and shut these vaults down before she and the others were overrun. Every second that she let pass without closing another portal was a second where a dozen more zombies could stagger through into the room to join their relentless companions.
Settling into a routine by then, Scout took out the third vault, then the fourth one. Eight to go, and there was definitely a noticeable lag to the flow of zombies by that point. It was helping. Especially as she’d focused on one side first, cutting off two-thirds of the zombie portals from that direction to allow the others to focus more attention on the other side. More attention meant more focused firepower, which took the zombies down faster.
As she turned her attention to the fifth vault, Scout paused briefly. A strange, tingling sensation, like she was being watched, came over her. She felt the hair on the back of her neck stand up, and briefly raised her head from the gun. Her eyes glanced around, but could find nothing. There were no zombies anywhere near her, and no other threat that she could see.
Apparently catching sight of her looking out of the corner of his eye, Tristan turned slightly to see what she was doing. Scout started to shake her head at him, but the moment he was facing her, she saw his eyes widen.
“Scout!” the boy blurted, lunging to grab her arm. He yanked her up and out of the way, falling backward in the process. The two of them crashed together to the floor with a pair of yelps.
Right where she had been crouching, Scout saw them. Ten little… strings? They came from above, wiggling as though in agitation. Confused, the girl raised her eyes, following the strings to their source. And then she saw him.
The man clung to the ceiling high above. His figure was… wrong. His legs were drawn up so that if he had been on the floor, he would have been kneeling. Though he was ostensibly facing the ceiling itself, his torso was twisted around unnaturally to face the floor below, while his head was twisted even further so that he was looking at them from a completely different angle than the way he should have been. His arms were wrong as well, twisted away from the direction of his torso to point straight down. His long, gangly fingers were attached to hands that seemed three times too large for the rest of his body, and those ten strings that had been about to grab onto Scout came from each of those fingers. Strings which were already slurping back up even as the man’s twisted-around head met her gaze with eyes that weren’t there, the sockets dark, empty voids.
Tristan and Scout both brought their weapons up to shoot at the thing as their Stranger senses went wild, but he had already inverted to drop to the floor nearby. With creaking bones, the figure drew himself up to his full, impressive height, standing eight feet high. He wore black pants and an old-fashioned striped tailcoat over a frilly white shirt and stained brown vest.
Tangle had realized what was happening by then, spinning that way with her weapon up. Seeing the man there, however, she paused. “What the…”
“Hello.” The man greeted them while holding up his hands, palm out. The strings were still hanging a few inches out from his fingertips, wiggling in the air like worms. “We can’t let you break any more of our master’s toys. It’s time to sleep.”
Abruptly, the ten strings launched outward, shooting through the air toward Scout and the others. The five of them each had two strings coming their way, fast enough that even as her recently acquired boost kicked in, Scout realized that they were coming too fast for most of the others to escape. Her gun snapped up and she fired two quick shots while throwing herself to the side. Though her boost made everything else seem to be in slow motion, the strings were so fast they seemed to be moving normally.
Both of Scout’s shots went straight for the man’s head. But just before they would have struck home, that head literally opened up. A hole appeared right in the middle of the man’s face, leading through to the open air behind him just long enough for the bullets to pass harmlessly through before closing once more.
Beside her, Tristan was moving just as quickly, his own boost kicking in to send him the other way while he fired a shot of his own at the man’s chest. A shot which met with the same reaction, as his torso pulled apart with a distinct slurping noise, creating a large hole that the beam easily passed through.
The cannon on Tristan’s arm shifted then, switching from gun to gauntlet with an extended blade all along the side. With a grunt, he threw himself that way, his figure blurring as he swiped at the creepy figure. In response, the man instantly bent all the way backward at the knees, his body horizontal to the ground while the blade went through the air just above him. Staying in that awkward position, he sent those strings from his fingers up.
“No!” Tangle was there, using a wave of her hand and some kind of telekinetic or wind power to throw Tristan out of the way just before the strings would have caught him. “Don’t let those things touch you.”
“But we like to touch,” the eyeless figure announced, righting himself once more. The strings danced through the air as he wiggled his fingers. “We Strings touch and play. Strings do good work for their master.”
“If they touch you, they puppet you,” Tangle informed them, keeping a wary eye on the figure as it watched for an opening, head cocked unnaturally to the side. “Like a marionette. They’ll take control. Everything you see is strings. The whole body. That’s why it can pull apart and put holes in itself like that. The whole body is just millions of sapient strings shaped like a person. They’re a colony creature.”
A colony creature. Scout’s eyes widened at that. It was true. The whole misshapen thing was just one huge collection of strings, like a… like a puppet made of yarn.
The creature (or creatures, apparently) gave an empty smile at that. Then a dozen strings suddenly burst from their chest, rushing not for the group, but for the rune on the wall that was blocking communication with the outside world. They were trying to break the spell, but were blocked by a quick wave of fire that Tangle created, shrieking in a collective voice.
“Scout, keep killing the doors,” Tangle ordered, before going after the String-thing with Tristan right behind her. The two of them were dealing with that, while Columbus, Sean, and the Vulcans focused on the zombies.
Which left Scout to get those vaults closed off. Hurriedly, the girl returned to her work. Now it was even harder to ignore everything else that was going on. The horrible creepiness of the so-called Strings and the thought of what might happen to Tristan and the others was almost too distracting. But she bore down, forcing herself to shut that out. The sooner she closed those vaults, the better for everyone.
Finishing off the vaults on one side before turning her aim to the six on the far side, Scout heard Sean telling Vulcan to keep helping Columbus. From the corner of her eye, she saw the boy rush by her while VJ transformed into his sword mode and fell into his hand. He threw himself into the path of several more strings, slicing through them with his word before shifting VJ to a shield and batting away another group. They had been coming for her, but Sean stopped them, standing in their path. “Keep going!” he blurted. “I’ve got you!”
Another vault down. Five left. Just five. The zombies seemed to have realized they were being cut off, so they were trying to pour out even faster. But there were still less vaults, allowing Columbus and Vulcan to narrow their firepower. She just hoped they could keep it up long enough for her to close off the rest.
Another trio of shots. Another vault down, its portal broken. Then another. Grimacing as the sounds of fighting only intensified behind her, Scout set another line of portals. She was moving as fast as she could, her inherited boost kicking in once again to slow everything down so she could line up her shots in what amounted to a second. Three more shots. Boom, boom, boom. Another vault cut off.
Finally, she was down to the last one. Just as she lined up her shot, there was a thud beside her. Scout’s eyes snapped down to see Sean on the ground, trying to roll over. Before he could get up, one of those strings came shooting through the air toward her. Scout started to jerk her gun around while half-falling backward, but it was too late.
It was not too late, however, for Tristan to throw himself into the string. Literally. He used his possession, disappearing into the string just before it would have struck Scout. Instantly, the string jerked backward away from her. Tristan came stumbling out of the string a moment later, falling to his knees and puking on the floor. At the same time, the String-creature itself (themselves?) stumbled as well. Giving a shriek, they leapt to the ceiling and scrambled away, disappearing into what looked like a second elevator shaft across the room.
She wanted to check on Tristan, but there was one more vault. Taking those last couple shots to close it off, Scout finally dropped her rifle and looked up in time to see Columbus finish the last of the zombies that had emerged. He was utterly soaked in blood and… and other things, panting as he stood in the midst of a pile of re-killed corpses. But it was done. The doors were closed, the vaults were cut off.
“Tristan?” She managed, looking that way.
“Good,” the boy himself replied, even as Tangle crouched by him. “I’m–uuulph. Not doing that again. Hive mind. Controlling one just gets all the others in your head and… not… not good. Not fun.”
His head snapped up then, almost violently. “Bomb. Bomb. There’s a bomb.”
“What?” Tangle demanded. “What bomb?”
“Strings,” Tristan hurriedly blurted, “the Strings. They have a bomb in the building. It’s a failsafe. If they really think there’s a chance of Avalon getting to the vault, they’re going to blow this whole place up. They’re probably on their way to set it right now.” He forced himself to his feet, stumbling a little. “We have to stop them.”
“But if they double back,” Sean pointed out, “and we’re not here, they could break the communication-blocking spell and get reinforcements that we can’t handle.”
Tangle nodded. “I’ll stay here. I can protect the spell myself, just in case. You saw how the bomb works?”
“Yeah,” Tristan confirmed. “I can disable it.” He tapped the side of his head then. “I know where it is, and how to disarm the thing. Perfect memory’s good for something after all.”
“Are you sure you’ll be okay by yourself?” Columbus hesitantly asked Tangle.
The woman gave a single nod. “Kids, I–I hate this. I hate sending you–never mind. Not time. Just go. Stop the bomb. You can do this. Get past Strings and disable that bomb. Go!”
Glancing briefly to one another, Scout and the three boys ran for the elevator.
“Tell you one thing,” Sean announced as they sprinted.
“I’m about ready for a vacation from this vacation.”