Exhaustion threatened to consume Thomas as he tried to shift the weight of the beams off of him. One wrong move and the whole mess would crush him. It was the worst game of pick up sticks he ever played. Dirt, debris, and cobwebs sprinkled down in his face as he inched another beam aside. Finally a wider swath of light broke through, gifting him with fresher air.
Thomas took a moment to rest and catch his breath. He was still stuck but he had one arm free and could breathe easier now. Hope urging him on, he pushed the next beam over with creaking protests. The steady shuffling of approaching feet tightened his chest as his heart began to race. He eased the beam back as he lay in wait for his fate. Scraping and thudding, the weight upon him grew lighter as someone or something dug through the wreckage. A gasp betrayed him as debris tumbled downward around him. Silence followed as Thomas tried to control his breathing. The mangled face from the saloon peered into the crevice.
“You do live,” it said. “I can help.”
Night had fallen by the time Thomas was freed from the wreckage. The fog had chilled again and returned to its eerie bluish silver light.
“Thank you,” he said while checking himself for injuries. Just scrapes and a few deep bruises. Dusting himself off he knew if he could keep himself going he’d be fine, but if he slowed down, everything would catch up with him.
“Run away,” its said. “Run while you still live.”
The figure shook its head, hunched down, and shuffled up the wreckage. It slipped into the fog and vanished. Thomas assumed it must have come to harvest his organs like it had been doing in the saloon. He had no idea why it was harvesting the organs, but he appreciated its compassion. Prepping layers of runes against his skin, he sent out additional runes out to orbit around him. Giving them a slow steady charge to keep them ready without draining himself, he set out to search for the church. Peccant had to be there and with him Thomas hoped to find Rhae and Rue.
Pacing himself at a steady clip, Thomas eventually concluded he needed to find the brood to find Peccant. He remembered how the last time they fought the brood poured from his robes like brackish waters. Find them at their thickest and he’d find Peccant. Drawing his magnum, he listened for the tittering and increased the speed of his stride. At first he feared he was going in circles. The tittering remained faint and it was difficult to determine which direction it was coming from. As the moon peaked in the sky, the tittering finally grew louder and got easier to pinpoint. Coming around the street corner he found a large pack of thirty lingering down the way.
He shot all six shots without stopping, discovering the silencing runes didn’t work. The rest of the herd barreled toward him. Crouching, he fired off the orbital runes into the pack to bring down ten more as he reloaded. Half the pack left and they were half way there. He emptied his gun again before they were upon him. Switching to his sword, he unleashed the first layer of charged runes on his skin. He finished off the remaining stunned seven with the sword. Reloading his gun, he reset the orbital runes. Two layers of runes remained on his skin. He increased the their charge and hurried down the street.
Keening filled the air as another pack of brood dropped down from the rooftops to the right of him. He emptied the gun, ran for the right turn in the street, and shot off four runic arrows at the remainders of the pack. Ducking down behind some crates, he reloaded his gun. Their keening changes things a bit, but he just needed to pay attention and go where they came from. If they come from more than one direction then he’ll just pick one and pray it’s the right one. His body protested but he forced himself back into motion. The muscles loosened up again as he jogged down through the fog.
Coming to another intersection, he paused to listen for any sign of more brood. Silence taunted him. Searching through the thick silvery mist, he noticed the vague silhouette of a large building in the distance that rose above the others. Its shape suggested a spire and hoping that this meant it was the church, Thomas took the nearest street heading in that direction. Which turned out to be a dead end with a small cluster of houses. Cursing his luck, Thomas trudged around the house. Better to keep going straight than go back he thought as he went through the dried up and wasted flower beds.
Two crouching hooded figures busied themselves with their work behind the next house. They placed organs into clay jars meticulously until Thomas approached. Twisting to face him, they froze with their long daggers clutched in their hands. Remembering the one that helped him, Thomas kept his gun pointed down and skirted around the entire back yard. He didn’t want to see what was left of that family anyway. The front lawn of the house greeted another street but it ran parallel to his target silhouette. The fleeing robed figures alerted him to incoming trouble and Thomas ran to a nearby porch for cover.
A pack of ten brood rounded the corner of the street, opposite where the figures fled. Thomas counted twenty total as they saw him. He took the leading six down with his gun, following up with ten runic arrows from his orbital array. Ducking back into the doorway from the porch, he drew his sword and struck down the remaining four as they tried to come through. Now he knew where he was headed. Reloading, he noted how little of his ammo remained. Cursing his poor planning, he reset the orbital array and left the house to retrace the pack’s path.
Their path brought him close enough for him to confirm that the silhouette belonged to the church. It also brought him close enough to see that the giant brood creature guarded the entrance with twenty brood at its flanks. Hiding in a building was a bad idea before and Thomas didn’t think fighting this head on would pan out well either. He scanned the surrounding houses, taking in their layout and proximity. Gazing back at the church, he knew he couldn’t just storm in. He needed to draw them out and hoped that he could use these buildings for cover.
Charging the orbital runes, he crept through the fog to get closer to them for better aim. He fired them all off at once, aiming for the entire cluster of smaller brood at the giant’s feet. The runic arrows exploded on impact, taking down twelve of them. Shrieking in pain from its wounded flank, the giant creature loped towards him with the remaining eight right with it. With his gun, Thomas shot down six more of the smaller brood and broke into a run between the houses. Grateful that he had prepped the speed loaders, he reloaded his gun on the fly with panicked fingers. The giant creature met him at the end of the alley with a screech. It was too big to fit down it as it tried to reach for him. Twisting to break for it back the way he came, Thomas found the remaining two brood sprinting down.
Thomas shot two rounds, stopping them cold and spun around to take a shot for the giant’s eye. It didn’t hit his intended mark but it hurt. The scream ripped into the night as Thomas bolted back through the alley. He heard the rooftops collapsing as the giant beast pursued him from above. Crashing down upon his escape, it swiped out with its wicked talons. Thomas fell to the ground, feeling the near miss. He brought up his gun and aimed at the other eye. Its tortured keening tore through him. The glancing shot wasn’t a killing blow but it blinded him. If Thomas could keep to its left flank, he had a better chance of survival. The beast would have none of it and began tearing at the houses nearest to it in an attempt to reach him. Desperate Thomas shot again at its eye and along with a final shot to the chest. A guttural wail came from it has thrashed upon the house. Debris exploded up from its blows and rained down as the beast finally dropped into the remains of the house.
Slumping to his knees, Thomas caught his breath. He survived. By all rights he shouldn’t have but he did. Calming himself, he reloaded his gun. After this he had only six prepped speed loaders left. If he had thought to pack a box of rounds with him he could have prepped the speed loaders again before going in, but he didn’t do that. Who loads themselves up like a walking armory anyway? Thomas decided that if was going to do this for a living then he would be from now on. It’s better to have the bullet and not need it than to need the bullet and not have it.
This was the beast that took Rhae which should mean she should be in that church. He took a deep breath to clear his head. The sun should be rising soon and with it the heat. Not liking the idea of fighting in the muggy fog, Thomas added another layer of runes to his skin and reset the orbital array. Before his resolve could waver, he was crossing the street.
Silvery fog shrouded the church ahead of him with its whitewashed walls and carpenter goth trimmings. Dim light diffused from the stained glass windows. The tall spire spiked into the night sky as the wide steps sloped down to meet the street. Ordinarily this building would be a welcoming place but tonight held a leering air about it as if it intended to lure in the unsuspecting.
It rankled him that Rhae was inside with Peccant, knowing what he had done to Rue. He just didn’t know how he was going to get them out. His aunt told him to break the rules and blow things up. Here he was and he still had no idea what the rules were other than not to die. Him dying wouldn’t solve anything nor would him just standing there. Ruffling his hair, he guessed the only thing he could do was go in with the first plan he had but switch it up for Rhae. Beyond that he was flying blind. Nothing really new there he thought as he took himself up the stairs and let himself through the door.
Rhae’s gun rested on the altar straight ahead. Off to the right of that, against a pillar was Rhae with her hands tied above her head. She appeared unconscious but otherwise unharmed. Thomas took a few quick strides towards her but stopped when Peccant stepped out from behind the left pillar, his sword already drawn. Rue joined him at his flank. Her katana was held down at her side.
“Return to me the Will of Amunetta,” Peccant said.
“Return to me my friend, Rhae, and my sister, Rue, first,” Thomas said.
Mild surprise on Peccant’s face quickly converted to a dark glare.
Rue quietly positioned herself between Thomas and Peccant. “I will not leave my father.”
“You heard the child,” Peccant said. “No trade. Hand over the beads.”
Thomas ears buzzed as he gazed at Rhae with an aching heart. Rue’s bonds may be too strong right now. That’s fine. He’ll focus on protecting Rhae.
“No,” he said. “You forgot Rhae. Let her go first.”
“Oh, you mean this poor girl over there?” Peccant said. “Such a pretty little thing. I can understand your fondest of her. Would be a shame if something happened to her.”
Thomas pointed his gun at Peccant’s face as his heart raced. “Don’t you dare.”
“Oh my how bold we have become,” Peccant said. “How wrong Lynnette was about you.”
Refusing to take the bait, Thomas stared him down over the barrel. Peccant’s look of expectation became one of disappointment as he nodded slightly. Thomas’ eyes widened a bit as he heard Peccant repeat the often said line from his childhood.
“You know the rules, now do as you’re told Thomas,” he said.
Thomas understood. He was done being told what to do. Time and again he had proven to his aunt he had the answers. The beads warmed against his skin and the energy from them pulsed through his blood. He had the answers now too if he could buy himself the time to find them. Seeing the revelation on his face, Peccant moved in to strike.