Zeika by-passed the queues, heading to where the wolf-moons had (with much indignation) set up their own members-only pantry. Waiting at the end of long lines for the past few months had worn them thin.
She walked by an adjacent table, where she glimpsed a small crowd of exiles— six old beggars— who seemed to be waiting for the lines to shorten. The six sat, silent and immobile as statues, not even bothering to acknowledge one another as they waited. There was no demesne insignia on the backs of their robes— no wolf-moons or otherwise— nothing. The pale sallow faces beneath their hoods seemed to droop down further to the table with each passing second. They looked so much like rotting trees that she half expected them to grow roots.
She raised a brow as she walked past them; one had just spasmed violently, as though he'd just gone cold-turkey off a kunja binge. Then, he seemed to ease back into his silent sit. None of the other beggars at the table seemed to mind or be concerned with the near seizure this guy had just had. A familiar feeling of flight began to rise in her gut, similar to what she had felt at the diner on its last day.
Yeah, and how are you expecting to feel around them, Z? No k-head has ever given you the warm and snugglies. Get real, and stop being paranoid. This is Guild Five for Pete's sake. They're probably just some random addicts.
Sighing, and realizing that she needed way more sleep, she turned towards the pantry— when a high-pitched scream snapped her calm in half.
She jerked her head up just in time to see that a pale and lanky blur had just flown over the table of six and jumped on a passing refugee, knocking him and his food tray to the ground. It was one of the old rotting beggars, and he was fighting, attacking, biting the refugee who was clearly no match for him, even though he must have outweighed the beggar by at least fifty pounds.
In the wild struggle, Zeika could only see bits and pieces, including the bull-and-rock insignia of the Third Civic Demesne, which stretched across the broad back of the refugee's robes. Her vision was quickly obscured again as the beggar and bull rock tumbled.
"THIS IS MY FOOD! GET THE HELL OFF OF ME, MAN!" The bull-rock snarled.
But from what she could see, the old beggar paid no mind to the food on the floor. The two were brawling now, and Zeika thought she could even hear animal snarls rising up from the brawl, curls of mammalian fury not at all human— and as the beggar's cloak fluttered to the ground, it revealed him in all his unholiness, revealed something so disfigured that it had to be a rejection of Nature.
Stringy hair clung to the man's head in plaid patches, and his skin was badly lesioned, decaying even. Long gnarled fingers dug into the bull-rock's neck and shoulder as the creature clamped down with its teeth. The tears it took from the man's flesh sent mists of blood into the air, speckling its jaundiced fish-eyes, which waxed wide as the man screamed. The beggar fed in grunting jerks, and the refugee's skin shriveled in almost instantly, like a tomato in summer, his flesh stripped— sucked— out of him until the ridges of his cheekbones poked through, sunken.
Zeika froze, and it took everything in her to not piss her pants as flight crashed up against fight, making her too afraid to stay, even more afraid to turn her back to it.
Crashes and screams of terror reverberated through the Guild. Her wide fearful eyes caught similar blurs of cannibal fury, saw people buckling to their knees and being dragged away screaming, but somehow she couldn't get her legs to move. There were more of those things, but she couldn't turn from the man who had just stopped struggling in the jaws of the human demon.
When the last twitch eked from the man's body, the thing dropped him, almost with contempt, and it roared, fonts of blood drizzling down his chin and throat, the sound not quite human, not quite animal. His own gaunt frame was increasing in bulk, plumping, replenished— and just as quickly, the bulk receded as though seeping out through some invisible sieve.
The creature looked across the caf, his gaze glazing into beige cataracts, once again knowing hunger. For the first time seeing her.
Her body fled, her arms pumping as fast as they could even as she heard the monster sprinting after her on two limbs or four, interchangeably, tearing down the hallway.
Zeika rounded the corner just as Manja poked her head out of the gym. The little girl's eyes buzzed with curiosity and then shifted, eclipsed by sheer terror.
She snatched Manja up by her robes and threw her into the gym, closing the double doors behind her just as the monster slammed into them. She whimpered as the thing rammed into the doors again, parting them just slightly. The monster was strong, and it screamed with animal rage as it slammed into the doors again. It was all Zeika could do to keep the doors closed.
"Zeeky!" Manja ran up to the door.
"Get back, Manja!"
Manja ignored her, and instead, she took off her hijab and tied it through the looped handles of the double doors. Zeika forced her powers through it, and the black linen turned into a steel knot around the handles. Then she fell back, breathing heavily.
"What is it, Zeeky?" Manja cried as she clutched her.
"I don't know, baby. I don't know." Zeika held her close and crabbed away from the door as the monster continued to slam into it and roar. Screams, human and creature alike, joined the monster's feverish peals of hunger, resounding against the walls of the Guild.
They were trapped.
Sirens blaring, Caleb and Jake tore down the back streets of the Droge section of the Fifth, taking the fastest way to the Guild of Almaut. The call had just come in, and Caleb had never seen so much movement in a police precinct. While none of the officers would lift a toenail in the direction of Koa, everyone knew what a Ninkashi attack in the Protected Demesnes meant, and even though Caleb was on restricted duty, he had jumped into the police car next to Jake. Palmer hadn't argued.
"Man, I never thought I'd see those things. Not here." Jake shuddered as he pulled the wheel, turning them down the next street.
From the passenger seat, Caleb didn't answer, but his fingers were unsteady as he checked his weapons. His throat was tight, tighter than he'd ever remembered it being.
"Have you dealt with these things before?" Jake pressed.
"Well the fact that you're still alive says something."
"Yeah, I shot my last partner in the leg so that I could get away."
Despite his nervousness, Jake laughed. "Come on, man, this is serious."
"Sorry." Behind his smirk, Caleb swallowed, and found it hard to do. "Listen. I've seen a group of Ninkashi take out entire squads of officers. Whatever you do, don't get bitten. And aim for the head or the heart."
"Yeah, thanks. I appreciate that coming from a master marksman. How about you shoot, and I pick their pockets after the fact?"
Caleb snorted. "For what, knuckle bones?"
"Shit, man, is that what they carry?"
"Seen it before. Bone marrow has lots of First Matter in it. But when that runs out..."
From the corner of his eye, Caleb could see Jake nod tightly in response. He pressed down harder on the gas.
The inhuman scream shook the doors on their hinges as the monster rammed into them again. With each hit, Zeika glimpsed a swollen pus-filmed eye gaping at them through the crack in the door. The metal hijab was starting to bend, the crack beginning to widen.
She stumbled to her feet, her eyes darting around, making blurs of the room until she saw it. The vent on the wall.
A sharp chink cut through the gym as the monster hit the doors again, bending one of the hinges.
Zeika pushed the balance beam as close to the wall as she could, and she jumped onto it, pulling Manja up behind her. She reached up with her power and melted the vent off its hinges, and as the knots of fabric fell down, she lifted Manja as high as she could.
"It's too high, Zeeky!" Manja cried as she reached up.
The door bent in, letting in another hellish scream. Zeika cast a desperate look back to see that one of the hinges of the door had broken off.
"Reach, baby! Reach higher!" Zeika stretched her body, lifting Manja as high as she could.
BAM! One of the doors caved in at its bottom, and howling, the monster flailed around, gnashing its jaws as it tried to squeeze its body through the bent bottom of the door.
Zeika tensed her muscles, and then with one powerful push, threw Manja upwards. The girl screamed but somehow grabbed onto the lip of the open vent. Struggling, she pulled her little body through.
"GO!" Zeika yelled, just as a loud fleshy tear slid wetly into the air, the unmistakable sound of the monster mutilating itself to get through the door.
"IT'S COMING!" Manja screamed from the opening. "JUMP, ZEEKY!"
Zeika turned only to see a ripple of wet muscle and decay scrabbling across the mat, halving the distance as it shrieked. She screamed, and as she fell back, she blindly reached out with her powers. As the monster leapt forward, huge chunks of rock and plaster came down from above and pounded down onto its body, burying it. Nothing moved beneath the pile.
Her breaths whisked in and out of her body in shallow rolls as she stared at the rubble. She hadn't known how it happened, but apparently, her instincts had reached above her, killing the metal reinforcements in the ceiling, bringing it all down. For a moment, the room was eerily silent. She didn't dare take her eyes off the pile of rock and marble.
"Go, Manja," she said shakily. "Follow the vent to the front, and I'll meet you there. Don't come out unless you see me. You know where it is, right? Go."
"Yes, Zeeky." Manja sniffed. "Please be there, okay?" And behind her, Zeika heard tinny thumps as Manja crawled through the ventilation system, vanishing into the dark.
Come on, Zeika. Go.
It took her a few seconds to get moving, and when she did, she slid as quietly as possible, all the while facing the pile of rubble, waiting for the thing to blast out of it like some flower from hell. She ignored all the questions hammering at her, knowing only one thing: she needed her gun.
She trembled, and still watching the rock pile, she crept around the edge of the gym until her wrapped foot touched a crumpled pile of cloth. She knelt down to her travel robes, eyes still fixed on the rubble, and she fished blindly for the Glock she'd stuck in her obi sash. When she felt its heavy metal in her grasp, she yanked it out and dashed into the hallway, taking the safety off as she ran.
Somehow, the hall was now thick with a gray haze, as though something had been on fire. People were still screaming in the Guild, but the cries of terror had grown distant, mere echoes in a labrynth.
Where are you, baby?
Looking up, Zeika traced the path of the vent into the hallway. She could see no sign of Manja. Either the girl hadn't known which turns to take, or she was faster than Zeika thought. Zeika skittered through, her eyeballs torn between scanning the vents and watching the floors for any signs of the other monsters that were surely prowling the halls. Seconds crawled by, and worry crept in as she looked for a sign of the kid— a flash of a blue eye, a wooly puff of hair—
Skree— a loud, squeal of metal being torn apart, and a scream from the kitchen. Manja's scream.
Zeika bolted, and she slid into the kitchen just in time see Manja running and ducking under the counters, crawling and crying as one of the monsters gained on her. Pots, pans, silverware, anything metal that Manja could mentally grab onto jumped off the counter beneath her power and clattered to the floor behind her, all of them rolling into the monster's path, tripping it up. It gurgled hungrily as it tripped and fell, but it kept crabbing forward, undaunted.
Zeika lifted the gun and squeezed the trigger, ignoring the thunderous, ear-splitting roars that filled the small room. Slick fingers and an untrained aim sent the shots wide, and chips of tile exploded from the kitchen wall, cups flipped off their stands, but Zeika clenched her teeth, tracing the path of the monster, aiming high and wild until five out of the ten bullets finally buried into its flesh, peeling it back from the bone.
The monster skidded off Manja's trail and crashed against the kitchen cabinet, the skin on its arms and ribcage exploding open beneath the hot metal. Manja ran over to her, and Zeika held her close, still aiming at the writhing thing on the floor in front of them.
It was still alive.
Her heart hammered as she took a step back. The monster flipped from its side to its slimy belly, and with wet hacks, it wheezed the bullets out, spitting their crushed bodies onto the kitchen floor.
Zeika flew, Manja's hand in hers, and somehow, she found the strength to lift the girl onto her hip as she tore her way to the front doors of the Guild.
Screams in the distance put speed into her; it was hard to tell where they were coming from in the vast old space. Shaking, Zeika lifted her gun and aimed as she made her way forward, marshaling all her courage to keep putting one foot in front of the other. She didn't hear the monster chasing behind them, but she didn't let herself hope it was dead either. They kept moving.
They crossed into the next room, into another cafeteria, an immense space which had been full but was now empty and trashed. She pushed forward, and as she passed through the blood-spattered doors of the mess hall, she finally understood where the smoke was coming from.
Dead and blackened on the floor, they laid prone, a stinking fog oozing from their burnt flesh. Men, women, even a couple of kids, a wrenching horror etched into their charred faces, legs bent weirdly, and arms reaching out, fingers curled into tight, gripping knots. As though they'd been trying to get something off them.
She swallowed down and hardened her stomach, forcing her legs into a harder jog through the cavernous hall. Her body ached, and for the first time, Manja felt heavy. The girl whimpered and buried her head into Zeika's shoulder as they ran through the graveyard. Zeika kept her own eyes off the carbonized corpses, and tried to ignore the distant screams, not daring to slow down—
An angry hiss snaked in from her left, and Zeika turned to see another one of them staggering forward, some bloody hunks of flesh falling from its knotted, swollen digits and plopping onto the floor. The thing's plump limbs were shriveling up again, its insatiable hunger returning. The stupor in its eyes sharpened as it saw them, marked them.
Zeika tore through the cafeteria, and yet another blur of gray flesh slid in front of them, cutting off their path. She turned, forcing her heels away from the ground with all her strength, all her speed, as the two monsters snarled behind them.
The cafeteria blurred around her, and suddenly, a messy barricade of long tables was blocking her path, standing between them and the front door of the Guild. She leaped and skidded across the long table on her side, knocking cold peas and glasses of milk onto the floor. She hit the ground running, glass exploding into bloodied shards beneath her bare feet. A scream scratched up her throat as the slivers burrowed into her heels, and still she ran, her fear drowning out the stabs of pain in a great flood of blinding terror.
Through the other two doors and into the foyer. She reached the main doors, seeing and remembering just as she slid to a stop in front of them—
They were dead-bolted.
Screaming in rage, Zeika kicked the door, again and again, trying to knock the heavy wood out of place. On the third kick, a heavy pounding responded from the outside.
"POLICE! OPEN THE DOOR!"
Zeika's heart nearly burst out of her chest as she recognized the voice. "CALEB! It's locked from the inside! I can't—"
A scream tore from her mouth as a powerful grip clamped down on her hair and shoulders. She dropped Manja, struggling against the monsters as they dragged her off her feet.
In her fury and terror, somehow Zeika yanked free of one of them, wrenched around, and at point blank range, she pulled the trigger on her gun over and over, sound and metal pounding the atmosphere until the gun clicked dry. One of the monsters howled as its gut exploded in dark streams of ichor and entrails, and it fell back against the floor, writhing, shrieking, but still not dying.
"ZEEKY!" Manja screamed again.
Zeika felt herself get thrown into the door, felt the gun fall from her grasp. The monster grabbed the back of her head and wham— slammed it into the wood. Pain exploded in her skull, and as she fought off the darkness, she flailed and snarled, her will to survive almost as primal as her attacker's hunger.
The thing shrieked, an angry bloody howl that seared her hearing, and it dragged her back as she struggled. She cried out as it bit down.
When Caleb heard Zeika's terrified scream, he cocked his shotgun and aimed at the door jamb, in the same moment knowing that it wouldn't work—
"We're on it!" Jake and a group of officers that were covering the door began to ram it.
Caleb slung his Remington, switching it for his rifle, and ran around to the side of the Guild. He picked the lowest window, tensed, and then sprang up the outer wall, the slime of the stones covering his fingers as he pulled himself up and onto the sill. Soot and smoke filmed the glass from the inside, obscuring his view. He didn't have to guess where the haze was coming from. The Ninkashi were feeding. Heavily.
He gritted his teeth and rammed the butt of his rifle into the glass, once, twice, until— crack!— the window blew in at its bottom right. Sweat rolled down his neck as he bludgeoned the rest of the pane out of his way. When the hole was big enough, he dove through, landed in a hard roll, and sprinted towards the front door of the Guild as worked the rod on his rifle.
He could hear the wails, distant and echoing. Dumb, it was dumb to not have cleared the room before barging in, but Zeika's cry for help—
Caleb slid to a stop, feeling his eyes widen at the scene at the front door. If he had time to not believe what he was seeing, he might have, but instead, he lifted his rifle, looked down the scope, and aimed.
Fangs ripped at the flesh in Zeika's shoulder, the pain new and magnificent. But even as Zeika's body began to go weak, even as the strange razing fire crawled from her chest, arm, and neck, out through the wound, she refused to die.
Screaming, as much to keep herself conscious as from the pain, she turned the right elbow of her sweater into solid steel, and threw it back into the monster's ribs. The blow was met with a dull wet crunch, as something beneath the animal's skin snapped. She was rewarded with a yelp, but it bit down harder, digging its teeth in. She threw her elbow back again, again, and again, putting all her strength into what she knew was the battle for her very life.
Diediedie— please DIE!
Her blows weakened as the tears ran down her face, and the monster still wouldn't let go. She her felt consciousness evaporating, and as she kept hitting, she forced herself to look one last time at Manja.
A loud splat erupted into Zeika's ear, and the hard crunch at her shoulder disappeared as the demon's face parted in a gush of blood and bone. The thing spasmed to a halt, and the headless corpse fell down. Dead.
She fell with it, twitching, and everything after that happened so fast— Manja running over to her bawling, the police breaking the door down and spilling into the Guild, Caleb trading his rifle for her as he picked her up and cradled her in his arms, calling for a medic.
Manja was on her, pulling the collar of her sweater. Caleb was telling her to stay awake. But she couldn't, and without her permission, her mind slipped into darkness, all the while the pounding, the pain, and the howls creating a symphony of terror that lapped at the sides of her dreams.
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