Chapter 14: Bolt in Blood
“No matter our design, death comes for us all in the end. Turn and make it tremble to call your name.”
As Valeo crouched low outside the boundaries of the estate, Breeze ran for her life, naked feet slapping the pavement as she went. Half a dozen of those things chased after her, their keening howls hot on her bare heels.
The creatures moved like twilight. At a distance they looked almost human, but the similarities ended there. There was something twisted and vile about them, starved nightmares cornering their dreamer at long last. Some staggered upright, and others loped along on all fours like wild animals. She had no word or name for them, but they would kill her whether she knew their names or not, just like they had killed in the kitchens. The image of that poor cooking boy, run through like a pig on a skewer, flickered through her thoughts with every other step. If she made one mistake, a single wrong turn, her fate would very well be the same as his.
Breeze flew down side alleys, taking streets at random. She stumbled past a cart laden with pottery, the fabric of her gown dangerously constricting her movement. With a growl, she reached down midstride, tore the dress up past her knee, and ran on.
Several frantic minutes later, she slowed to a stop. She had put the villa far behind her, shaking her first batch of pursuers soon after leaving the fence line. She scurried into the sidelines, flitting silently from shadow to shadow as only she could. The last thing she needed was a tumble with one of those things, her dress about as much protection from those gruesome claws as damp tissue paper.
It made no difference. They took up her trail within minutes, somehow finding her again despite her caution. Whether by smell, or sound, or some other sense she didn’t dare acknowledge, they always knew where she was. She switched back to outrunning them, a feat she was now hard pressed to keep.
The state of the city was no better than the villa. Windows were shattered and shards of wood littered the stones like dead leaves. Doors lay in mangled heaps and many houses that had stood for a hundred years were now crumbling husks. The screams of victims spread through the streets, and scattered fires erupted everywhere she turned. She flew past a group of fleeing townsfolk, hoping they, too, could get away but knowing deep down they were doomed. An image of those terrified people being torn apart as she ran flitted across her mind.
It will slow them down.
The pragmatic part of her, the raw sweat and coils part of the brain, the part that cared only for its own survival, embraced the idea, but the rest of her blanched in disgust. She pressed on faster, her feet going numb as her arms pumped like the pistons of a ship engine. She said a silent prayer as those behind her began to scream.
She wanted to turn and meet them head on, could feel the anger burning inside her, clawing its way up. With each passing stride, her fury grew, uncertainty and hopelessness welling up in tandem. She couldn’t win. Even so, the truth still tasted like bitter cowardice.
She hadn’t wanted to flee, leaving Valeo behind to who knows what tortures at the hands of those things, but wasn’t given a choice. She had ducked from sight, hiding to make sure Valeo made it out, but it hadn’t mattered. The moment Drake fired, the whole foyer had ignited.
Those things had launched themselves after the Corsairs, and before she could stop herself, a cry of panic had escaped her lips. She had quickly stifled the sound, knowing the stupidity of it, but luck had never been hers as it was Valeo’s. The last of the creatures had heard her. Those terrifying silver eyes . . . That same shade sometimes basked Valeo’s eyes, but while his were playful and mischievous, these promised only death. She had to flee or be slaughtered where she stood.
The last she’d seen of her childhood companion, he was fleeing for his life as surely as she was.
Get to the lighthouse.
Her lungs burned and her feet grew raw from the uneven stones, but the worst of it was held at bay by thick calluses along her feet, consolation prizes for most of a life without shoes. She pushed on even faster.
She turned a bend in the road and skidded to a halt. Hundreds of round objects littered the ground in front of her, obscured by shadows pressing in from the buildings above. In the center of it all were the dilapidated remains of a fruit stall. Dozens of bodies filled the spaces between, their silent screams still etched upon their horrified faces. The night sky bleached all color from the darkened pools around the square, but she knew that if a light were shone they would be crimson.
Worst of all, she was not alone. Dark forms still lurked about the bodies throughout the wide square. Without thinking, she dodged the curious round shapes and leapt onto the counter of the torn stand with no more sound than her namesake.
If she had taken time to think about where she was, or even looked down at the shapes, she’d have known exactly what littered the ground, and who they had belonged to:
They were Elly’s apples.
As a phantom, she squeezed right between two of the creatures toward a connecting street. Only a few more strides and she would be free.
But again her fortune fell short. One of the creature’s necks snapped around, and it let out a strange, keening wail of surprise. It leapt into her path, its clawed hands scrabbling for her, not understanding the fury it had fell upon. Brielle Oshikari was cornered, angry, and terrified. She was a waif, with nothing to defend herself but the sparkles on her dress, facing a two-hundred-pound nightmare of wicked claws and blades built only for killing.
It never stood a chance.
Breeze lowered her head and ploughed into the beast’s torso just as it reached out to slash her face. The bones of the creature’s ribcage snapped, and she flung it over her shoulder. Pain seared along her arm as the thing’s filthy claws raked her, but she tore free and was gone, the rest of the creatures right behind her.
Her vision became a blur as she wound her way through streets she had grown up in. Each turn and stone greeted her like an old friend, allowing her to keep ahead of the dogged pursuers. In those desperate moments, even she could recognize that the only reason she was still alive was her knowledge of the city. Their cries were growing ever closer.
With a rush of relief that warmed her sore legs, she looked up and saw the lighthouse looming above her in the darkness.
She ran forward to the familiar stone and pressed her hands against it just as she heard footsteps enter the street behind her.
She turned around on impulse and nearly fainted. Fifty monsters were waiting behind her, completely cutting off any means of escape.
Valeo scaled the next building in line, running along the rooftops. He preferred being out in the open rather than risk getting caught up in the madness on the streets. People were running every which way, trailing half an outfit, missing a shoe, torn from sleep as the world around them began to crumble. He tried in vain to shut out the shouts and agonized cries of people in the cobbled thoroughfares, telling himself that he couldn’t do anything, that those people were beyond his help.
It didn’t soothe him in the slightest. They might be people he knew, people he saw every day. He thought of Jakk and his gruff, awkward half-hugs; of Elly, slinging her apples. How had this happened? Why was there absolutely no defense? People are seldom prepared for nightmares made real, but there should have been something.
The most terrifying notion of all: Had he been the one to bring them here? He tried to tell himself that was ridiculous, but he couldn’t shake the image of those things smiling at him. He was what they had come for. Which didn’t make sense at all. What would bring monsters of myth down upon him? He had no answers, but he was damn sure going to get some.
Jaw clenched, he picked up the pace. Leaping from roof to roof, he soon left the screams behind him. Most of them anyway. The sword Drake had given him still flapped awkwardly at his waist, bouncing off his knee, becoming more of a nuisance with every stride.
He slowed, unhooking the strap from his waist and walking to the edge of the roof he was on, ready to toss the blade to the streets. A howl rent the air just as he flung it. He grabbed wildly for the sword as it pulled away, snagging the belt with the tips of his fingers.
On second thought . . .
But he couldn’t have it getting in the way all the time. Thinking quickly, he placed the scabbard at the small of his back, parallel to the ground, and wound the leather belt tightly around it, cinching the rest around his waist. He hopped up and down, tugging at the scabbard. It seemed secure enough, and he got his freedom back.
He took off again, springing away into the night and not giving the Fallen below any time to find him out.
He went to his own house first. He knew that Breeze might, at that very moment, be in dire need of him, but he couldn’t leave the old man to die alone. He skittered to a halt above his trapdoor, flinging it wide, and dove down into the depths of his bedroom, catching a rope and smashing loudly to the floor. He ran to the old man’s bedroom, but he wasn’t there—just a mass of tangled sheets. Valeo’s heart jumped into his throat, mind rolling over every terrifying possibility. Cold sweat slicked the nape of his neck.
“Down here, boy,” came a growl from the direction of the stairs. Valeo sprinted down the steps four at a time. He hooked the post at the bottom and swung himself wildly into the gloomy engine shop. His grandfather was there, behind the counter, all of the antique guns he had ever collected placed tenderly around him. Indeed, the crotchety old bugger looked frightening with his furry arms and bulging belly surrounded by old rifles and a plethora of machine parts. Before Valeo could breathe his relief, a cold chill found him; those things just kept coming, no matter how many bullets struck them.
“We have to go, Jakk,” Valeo whispered.
“Aye?” Jakk barked, a cigarette stuck between his lips. “Leave?” he asked, settling back in his chair. “I ain’t going nowhere.”
Valeo shook his head, slamming his hand against the counter. “We don’t have time for this, you stubborn boar. We can’t stay here.” Valeo began to shake.
Jakk shook his head, forever obstinate.
Valeo stared at his grandfather for a long moment, pity and anger fighting for control of him. “Don’t you get it? Don’t you know what’s out there?”
Jakk nodded. “’Course I know, you dunce. You think I’m just shinin’ these?” He indicated the guns in front of him.
Valeo almost laughed, in spite of everything. He had never gotten the crusty old bag of bones to do anything. Why had he expected any different now?
“Then you’ll die here, you fool,” Valeo growled, feeling his eyes grow wet, flashing blue in the moonlight. He angrily rubbed the moisture away.
“Aye, most like,” Jakk said grimly, his leathery face crinkling into a grim frown. “But I’ll be takin’ a few of them bastards with me if I got any say.”
Valeo stared at him in amazement, then nodded darkly. “Will stay, too, then. Right here, beside you,” he whispered, a few tears falling freely down his face as he looked at the only family he had left.
“No!” Jakk roared, leaping to his feet. “You get gone, outta here boy. Get to a ship, get to Drake.”
Valeo chuckled, sputtering past the tears. “Oh that’s Fayting brilliant, that is. Does everyone know more about me than me?”
Jakk shook his head and gave a snort. “Boy, if you’d stop thinking you know everythin’, maybe you’d learn somethin’.”
The room went silent, only the ticking of an old clock keeping track of the seconds as they shattered.
“Can’t leave you,” Valeo whispered, and he meant it. He loved that old man more than he could admit, even to himself.
“You got no choice,” Jakk retorted, coughing to cover up a few of his own sobs. “It’s here they’re comin’. It’s you they want. I can’t get away. If anyone ever could, it’d be you. Now GO!” he bellowed, the corners of his eyes brimming.
“We can go together. We’ll get away,” began Valeo, the words ringing hollow even in his own ears. “Can’t just let you die.” Valeo bit down on his tongue so hard he tasted copper.
Jakk chuckled and sighed. “We’re all gonna die, boy. You, me, er’yone. Nothin’ flyin’ over the eight skies is gonna change it. Only thing we can do is choose how we want ta live until we do.” He gave a wan smile, almost covering up the fear in his eyes. Almost.
That was when it hit home: his grandfather wasn’t coming. Valeo reached forward, squeezing the old man’s shoulder, so much like a gnarled tree root.
“Stay alive, you stubborn mule,” he choked out.
“Doin’ the best I can, you stupid, reckless shit,” Jakk shot back, smiling. “Do us a favor though.” He pulled the hat from around his ears and worried it in his hands. “Find your mum. Tell her”—he cleared his throat—“tell her I’m sorry for what I did to her. Sorry for everythin’.” He coughed again, scratching at his eye even as a tear spilled out.
“And take care of yourself, Valeo. Despite everythin’, that’s all I ever wanted to do.” His eyes were glazed and distant. He blinked rapidly a few times and nodded farewell.
Valeo took one last look at his grandfather, busy lighting another cigarette to cover the tears running down his ruddy cheeks, and tore back into his room, each step tearing at his heart. He finished putting together his pack to give his hands something to do and pulled it over his shoulder.
As he picked up Breeze’s bow and quivers and hooked the lot alongside the knapsack, he saw the discarded arrow he had made for her years ago. The poor missile that couldn’t even fly straight. Hardly thinking about it, he stuffed it into the quiver with the others.
He had been in the house less than five minutes, but time was falling fast through his fingers. He needed to leave. He paused one last time and looked around the familiar space, not knowing if he would ever see it again. Nodding to himself, he turned to the trapdoor, to the lighthouse, to Breeze, to life as a Corsair, to the wide skies and adventures he had always yearned for. But now, looking at the mess he was leaving behind, the cost was almost too much to bear.
He looked once more to the darkened landing. He thought about going back down, about dragging the old man, moaning every step of the way, to safety. He thought about throwing his arms around the crotchety old wart, pulling him close, but he knew if he did, he would never be able to let go. He thought about so many things in that moment, events that had come to pass, all the stories that should have, and all those things that never would. Valeo sobbed silently to himself, his face falling into hands he could no longer see.
He never went back downstairs, never said farewell to his grandfather; but he heard the glass shatter and the first volley of gunfire, even as he slammed the hatch shut behind him.
Valeo made it to the lighthouse without incident, springing up the stones as he had the day before, anxious to find Breeze.
As he reached the halfway point, the dark city skyline ablaze with light from the fires, he heard howls and a woman’s scream. A great commotion erupted from the opposite side of the tower, but he was in no position to see what it was about.
He thought of Breeze, wondering if the scream had been hers. He found the warmth in his chest easier than he ever had before. It almost burned him. Those next few moments, Valeo forgot all his worries as he nearly flew up the side of the lighthouse, slipping more than once but laughing all the while.
He got to the crest, made the leap backwards and pulled himself up with a final grunt, nearly dropping the knapsack two hundred feet to the stones below. He sprinted toward the crescent bulb, throwing off the bow and knapsack, and slid the last few feet on his knees.
He had to get it lit.
He ripped the back panel open and had the wires switched over in seconds. Bright beams of light cut through the darkness for miles as the bulb whirred to life. He looked up. In the distance he could see dozens of ships floating in the dark skies, several of them aflame. The Judy, however, was not among them.
“Better hurry up, Drake,” Valeo mumbled, biting his lip. He heard another great clatter and scrambled to the side to look down.
Breeze climbed as fast as she could toward him, streaked with blood and sweat, and she wasn’t alone. Behind her there were at least a dozen of the Fallen in fast pursuit, crawling up the sheer stones like spiders.
“Breeze!” Valeo shouted down before he could help himself. Her eyes flashed up and immense relief filled her smoke-covered face, short lived as all those luminescent eyes merged on her. She would never make it on her own. One misstep, one tug at her dress, and she would surely fall to the rocks below.
Valeo searched frantically around the tower top, eyes landing on the bow. He ran over and took it up, throwing the quiver over his shoulder as more keening howls echoed through the night, all crying out the same murderous note of recognition. He looked down to the houses and buildings below. Hundreds of glowing silver eyes peered through the darkness, all moving through the streets toward him. The lighthouse drew them in like a dinner bell.
We’re completely screwed.
Valeo swallowed hard, and ran back to Breeze. She was over halfway up, a grim look of determination etched across her brow.
He took a deep breath and drew the bow awkwardly to his cheek, aiming straight down toward the closest Fallen under her. He was nowhere near the shot Breeze was, but he didn’t hesitate.
Breeze gave a yelp of surprise as the arrow glanced her shoulder, blowing past her and Valeo’s intended target to the stones below. She looked up at him, and even with hot breath on her heels, she paused long enough to give him a withering look of disdain.
He winced and notched another arrow.
“Always looks so easy when you do it,” he shouted down at her.
Reacting on instinct, he reached for his luck and again found it easily. He let it burst through his chest down to his fingertips. His energy was waning, but now, with so much adrenaline coursing through him, it hardly made a difference.
Suddenly he knew he could hit every one of those monsters right between the eyes. Luck singing through his limbs, he fired again.
The arrow didn’t hit the clawed beast between the eyes as intended, but struck its collarbone, knocking it loose. It slammed into two more below, and all three plummeted to the ground with a screech of denial.
Again and again, Valeo fired and those remaining soon followed their brethren.
When the coast was clear behind Breeze, Valeo turned and jogged to the other edges of the tower, knowing what he would find.
Lead weights dropped into his gut as dozens of Fallen swarmed up every side of the tower like roaches. He pulled the bow taut, cutting his cheek with a fingernail, and let the arrows fly as he ran back and forth, trying to stem the tide. As time wore on, he felt the luck begin to ebb. Soon, his aim began to fail, but with the Fallen swarming, there wasn’t enough room to miss.
He heard shale crunch behind him and rounded on the sound, thinking one of them had made it up, but it was only Breeze, her once lovely dress in filthy tatters. Without a word, he tossed her the bow and what remained of the quiver. Displaying the same grim determination with which she met every challenge, she went to work.
Valeo looked at the sky, searching for a ship as the bright beams of the crescent flashed, but if there was one nearby, he couldn’t see it. Cursing, he loosened the sword on his back, wishing he knew how to use the damn thing, and began tearing up bits of shale shingles. He crested the lip of the tower and lobbed the impromptu missiles at the Fallen as they came like a tidal wave of shadow, not one of them making a sound. They swarmed the tower in utter, terrifying silence.
The next several minutes were a frantic blur as the pair, reunited at last, struggled to stem the deadly onslaught. They twirled around each other, launching their projectiles as best they could.
As Valeo spun once more to change sides, he nearly collided with Breeze and was forced into an ungainly pirouette to avoid crashing into her. As they both recovered from the near miss, Valeo burst out laughing.
Breeze chanced a glance at him, surely wondering if he had gone completely mad. He just kept right on laughing as he threw chunks of shale at terrifying faces, their sharp teeth gleaming.
“Breeze!” Valeo finally called, struggling to stifle his chuckles. “Looks like we finally got that dance!”
Again he roared with laughter, and he wondered deep down if he had actually lost his mind. But if so, he wasn’t the only one. Breeze’s tinkling laugh soon joined his.
Together, death’s fingers at their throats, they laughed. Nothing in the world could have been less funny, and yet here they were, howling at the tops of their lungs.
A dark head poked up over the edge, its too-wide mouth twisted into a grotesque leer. Valeo threw the last of his shingles into its face and drew his sword. The missile didn’t dislodge the Fallen, but it wasn’t supposed to.
Valeo slashed with his blade, cutting across its glowing eyes. The Fallen fell away only to be replaced by another. Valeo cut that one down, too. He peered down and stifled a gasp.
There were hundreds. They would be overrun; it was only a matter of time.
Unless . . .
“Breeze, you’re a god-awful singer,” Valeo shouted abruptly, still hacking wildly at fingers and faces. “You’re all nasally and off-key. Horrible, like a pack of squirrels caught in a fan blade.”
The look of complete astonishment on Breeze’s face was almost worth all of it.
“That’s right,” Valeo continued, shoving past her to stab at a Fallen creeping past her defenses. “Absolute swill.”
A dark glower replaced her confusion, her jaw tightening in anger.
“You’re a terrible shot, too!” he continued frantically, not looking at her as he swung his arms wildly, continuing his tirade. “Never said it, but on that last shot yesterday, you choked,” he said, spitting. “Cespin is ten times the shot you’ll ever be.”
He turned to her then, mocking her with a wide grin. Dozens of spindly hands had gained the lips on every side. They were out of time. He slapped her hard on the leg with the flat of his blade.
“You’re worthless. Nothing. RageGlass.!” he shouted.
Her violet eyes flared in the moonlight, and for half a second, Valeo had something more to fear on that tower than the monsters. He leapt back, slashing like mad at whatever was behind him, gaining as much distance as he could from her, happily willing to take his chances with the Fallen.
Breeze began to shake, throwing her bow to the side as a growl escaped her lips. She turned herself away from Valeo, wanting to keep him out of her sights as the tremors swelled. Her body shook violently as she threw her head back, roaring into the night.
Unexpectedly, she fell still. Fallen began to surround her. A clawed hand reached for her tattered dress. Still she didn’t move.
The instant before those filthy fingers made contact, Breeze snapped forward, punching out with both fists. The creature was blown off the side of the lighthouse, its surprise never seen as Breeze exploded into movement. She flowed with all the deadly grace of an avalanche, launching Fallen off the tower as if they weighed no more than paper clouds. As her anger soared, their slashing blades found nothing but air the instant before her body found them.
Valeo kept stabbing wildly, barely keeping the other Fallen at bay, but his eyes kept flicking back to her in awe.
Within seconds, there were only two creatures remaining on the roof. They fanned out, flanking the dangerous girl. Breeze crouched down, chest heaving as her hair flipped wildly around her face, her features insane. One of them slashed out at her and she ducked the cut, foot snapping out and tangling up its legs. She kept up her momentum, spinning in a crouch, bringing her knee back around in line with her opponent’s face as it fell. A resounding crack echoed through the night as the Fallen’s head snapped back, body spinning away into the darkness.
The remaining creature sliced down at Breeze’s exposed neck. Valeo cried out, busy keeping more from gaining a hold.
Breeze’s hand snapped up and the blade stopped dead, as surely as if it had hit stone. The thing looked incredulous. Breeze stood and smiled, her eyes wide and terrifying. Her foot exploded forward, slamming into the Fallen’s chest. As it plunged over the edge, she tore the sword from its grasp.
She flipped the blade end over end, her hand dripping with blood, and caught it by the handle. She wasted no time, rushing over to join Valeo. Together they tried to stem the flow, thick as roaches all around them. Breeze hacked with incredible strength and wild abandon, most of her opponents giving her a wide berth. Valeo felt luck fill him once more, swinging his sword and somehow connecting again and again, dodging blows as they rained down all around him. Valeo knew they couldn’t keep up this pace. He took solace in the fact that he would die beside her, his finest friend . . .
The roar of a ship engine filled Valeo’s ears. Never had he heard something more beautiful. The Judy hurtled through the air at full tilt, sails billowing in the late-night air. The crew dashed about the deck, tugging the sails and firing shots. Aya looped the ship alongside the lighthouse with perfect precision, snapping through tower support cables as she went.
The lighthouse rumbled and swayed, those Fallen near the edge tumbling away into the darkness.
“Breeze, let’s go!”
Valeo scooped up the knapsack and grabbed Breeze’s wrist, tugging her along in his wake. Claws and swords slashed at their faces, but fell away as they were knocked aside or blown back by gunfire.
Valeo and Breeze sprinted to the edge and leapt wildly into the air, arms pinwheeling and Fallen leaping out after them.
They crashed down onto the deck, Breeze clipping the railing and tumbling into a sprawling heap. The ship engine roared to life as more and more creatures clawed after them, finding only empty space as the ship lurched away.
Valeo scrambled to his feet and looked at the shining lighthouse rapidly shrinking into the distance, now black with swarming bodies. In the very middle, somehow still recognizable through the mass, was the white-clad nightmare from the foyer, the one with the bloody metal teeth, eyes starving after them, rage contorting his features into a carnal mask of fury.
A terrible, yearning cry pierced the skies, and hundreds of silver dots flashed longingly through the darkness as the Judy broke through the clouds and sailed away into the night.