Magnolia leaped up onto the scaffolding and began to climb – she could hear Taylor fighting on the roof above, alone. That was, of course, her fault – if she hadn’t been slow and weak, he never would have been able to get so far ahead.
The screaming body of a Solstice fell past her and hit the ground with very final thump. There was no need to check on his status – she knew Taylor wouldn’t have thrown him, and ceased fighting him, without a good reason.
She reached the top of the scaffolding and jumped onto the rooftop. Taylor stood, covered in blood, surrounded by bodies, staring at the hole in the sky. She’d been very careful to avoid looking at the sky – what came through didn’t matter, only the fighting at street level mattered.
Keeping her eyes away from the sky also meant that she didn’t have to know if her mother was up there, circling, waiting for another chance to dispense “wisdom” and play at civility.
Taylor turned toward her, a magnificent study of violence and beauty. He grunted once, then ran across the rooftop, jumping over the remains of his handiwork. She skirted around the bodies and followed him to the next rooftop, and next.
He paused at the edge of the next one, sniffing the air for a clue on where the next target was. She crouched, slipped a new clip into her gun and refreshed her clothes – there was no point in fighting in bloody clothes.
She looked up as he reached out a hand.
‘Blackout?’ she asked.
He gave an affirmative grunt. ‘It’s almost clear though.’
She looked at the building across, the window was missing, she peeked over the edge of the roof and saw it in pieces on the ground below.
‘I can smell blood,’ he commented.
She took another look at him, just to make sure that he hadn’t refreshed his own clothes. ‘Sir?’ she asked, unwilling to point out the obvious.
He stabbed a finger in the direction of the window. ‘Over there.’
Not for the first time, she wondered if in one of his previous incarnations, he’d been a bloodhound.
He was quiet for a moment, then disappeared. She looked over at the window and watched him unsurprisingly appear.
The jump was too far for her to make it – maybe if she’d been a little more bird than human it wouldn’t have been a problem, but as it stood, physics were against her. She stood and closed her eyes – focusing on the window across.
She concentrated on every detail, its relative location and her current position. The image in her mind disappeared down a long, dark tunnel, and she felt herself disappear from the rooftop. She raced after the image in her mind, and reappeared in the world, just a little too close to Taylor.
He grunted, and pushed her to the side. She took in the room, first noting the blood stains he was looking at, then the hole in the wall.
‘Human?’ she asked.
He reached a hand toward the ground and something flew up into his hand, he stared at it, then flung it towards her.
It was an Agency ID card.
She looked down at the blood, and an obvious question formed. ‘Where’s the body? Has it been-?’ She stopped talking as she saw his eyes glaze over.
‘It wasn’t shifted back,’ he said as he blinked. ‘It’s missing.’
‘The leech?’ she asked as she looked at the hole in the wall. ‘The report indicat-’ he silenced her with a look.
‘There’d be remains,’ he said simply. ‘I doubt it swallows the corpses whole. Not the leech. Something else.’
‘It doesn’t matter.’ He turned from her and walked from the room, sniffing the air. He stopped dead for a moment, then ran across the floor – in mid-stride, he shifted. She followed him, then bounded down the stairs. He stood in the doorway of the building, staring at the pool of blood.
‘Human?’ she asked again.
‘Not this time.’ He pointed at the trail. ‘It stopped here for a minute – it’s bleeding, but still very mobile. Leech.’
He disappeared again, this time appearing at the end of the street – he drew his gun and slowly turned, seeking any sign of the leech.
She reached a hand up to her head, feeling the familiar twinge of a battle headache – on occasions, she liked to try and convince herself that they were psychosomatic, that they only happened in battle when she went five minutes without shooting someone. She pulled a feather from her hair and crushed it between her fingers, wishing that her bird half could contribute more to the constant battles she found herself in.
She dropped the feather, and had time to wonder if it was a cloud was passing over the moon that was blocking the light before something heavy landed on her and slammed her to the ground.
Her right arm popped out of the socket – she was so familiar with the sound that she’d on occasion – on drunk occasion – entertained the notion of naming it. It made a slightly different sound her left arm popping from the socket, which was a less familiar sound. She could even pop it back in on her own, only needing to see the Parkers for some painkillers afterwards.
The thing on top of her was an immovable object, it was standing on her shoulders, not affording her any leverage whatsoever. She turned her gun and fired wildly – it screamed, but didn’t move.
Taylor’s slow, careful footsteps approached. She wished for a heroic statement, a possessive statement, a protective statement, anything to acknowledge that he’d be fighting her until she could stand and pop her shoulder back in.
It took one foot off her back, then the other, and grabbed her with its hands – sharp claws tore through her dress and into her back.
It was pain, but nothing crippling, so she refused to react.
The creature dragged her to her feet, its claws still lodged in her back. She couldn’t fade from his grasp – teleporting herself was hard enough when she didn’t have the distraction of a pain that would require stitches and at least a couple of hours off-duty.
The creature growled and snapped its jaws right near her head. She hung limply – not wanting to struggle and make any of Taylor’s shots difficult.
‘The mirror is mine,’ it growled. ‘Don’t get in my way.’
Taylor fired, and the bullet slammed into the monster’s head. It loosened its grip a little and she slipped out. She stumbled to the side and required another gun.
The monster wasn’t so cocky now, it stood on wavering legs, blood pooling around its feet.
Taylor fired again, and it screamed, a long-drawn out scream of pain.
She relaxed a little and backed up to the wall – glad that the leech would be out of the way before the mirror fell – the Solstice were easy enough to pick off, and the fey usually relented and allowed them to take possession of it. So much as they were creatures of chaos, they understood the sacred place order held in the world.
In truth, it was the only thing that held the world together. Rules. Law. Order. Commands. Hierarchy. System.
Taylor moved closer to the creature. He was above indulging in banter with those he was about to kill, but not above getting in a punch or twelve.
A sharp crack split the air – she pushed herself off the wall to see what it was. There was another crack, and she saw a bolt of lightning rush up from the ground and strike the hole in the circling clouds. There was another strike, and another, then everything fell silent.
‘Meeellll…’ the monster slurred. Taylor lifted huge fist and punched the monster in the gut.
She couldn’t keep the smirk off her face. It was good to see something go right for once.
The wall behind her exploded.
‘Gods-fucking-damnit,’ she whispered as she hit the ground again.
There was the familiar sound of standard-issue guns firing, and the less familiar shouts of some of the field recruits – she rarely bothered to learn their names. They weren’t good enough at what they did, otherwise they’d be under her command. They were weaker, yet made to believe they were just as good, in a different way. At least the nerds knew that they were weak, that they needed protecting, that their usefulness ended once the shooting started.
There was a green flash, and everything went silent for a moment.
The field recruits retreated into the building, and she heard Taylor run back down the street. She pushed herself up and shook the pieces of debris from her. Standing up, she discovered, had been a bad idea. She tried to focus her eyes, but failed, everything stayed blurry and indistinct.
She reached up and wiped at the blood leaking down the side of her face. She traced it upward – there was a gash near her temple – such wounds were fine in training, where the doctors were only a few steps away, but in the field they were slightly more trouble.
Claws scratched her back, but before she could turn, the monster grabbed her again. It took a step, then another, dragging her with him. It groaned with every movement it made, but it continued all the same, as if powered by something more powerful than its urge to lay down and succumb to its wounds.
‘The mirror is mine,’ he whispered to himself as he dragged her up a flight of stairs.
She let her hands hang.
Nothing. They were still inside the blackout zone.
They went up another flight of stairs.
It was a command that couldn’t work, but it gave her racing mind a moment’s calm. It was mulling over ideas on how to escape. Exactly how much skin she would sacrifice to pull away from the monster’s grip and calculating the odds on which direction was the quickest way out of the blackout.
The monster shoved her to the ground, and she decided to stay there. She couldn’t make the first move, if she had to wait it out – it couldn’t ignore its injuries much longer, then she would.
She hissed in pain, and crawled back toward the wall. Another wall, but it was unlikely there was another Solstice hiding behind this one, so much like rats as they were, they couldn’t be everywhere.
‘The mirror is mine…fix everything…get her back…’ he swayed back and forth and her eyes tried to focus on the stairs. Moving quickly enough, she was sure she could grope her way to safety, and even if she fell, it wouldn’t be the first time she’d fallen down a flight of stairs.
‘Natenal!’ the monster screamed. ‘I’m sorry! I’m sorry!’ It collapsed and began to sob, its body shaking.
Move, you weak bitch. She stood and stumbled forward, aiming for the stairs. As she passed the monster, its right hand shot out and grabbed her, pulling her to the floor. It dug its claws deep into her leg, and this time, she couldn’t hold back a scream.
It ripped out its hand and slowly pushed itself, it kicked her back against the wall and stretched itself to its full, profusely bleeding, height.
‘For my son, I will live.’
A hand punched through the wall beside her, and a bleeding hand, followed by a jacketed arm wrapped around her chest.
Another hand punched through the wall on the other side and wrapped around her head.
She recognised the hands: Taylor.
Instinctively, she released her breath and relaxed herself, whatever he was doing was going to hurt.
The thin wall groaned, then gave way as she was pulled through it. For a moment, she was held tightly, but then one hand released as they slammed into something. She felt him pulling them upwards a little, then he pushed her away and let the piece of wall drop.
He grasped the torn back of her dress and pulled her up to him, holding her to his body with one strong hand.
All the pain dropped away, all the battle plans and worries about the mirror falling. Nothing mattered – he was holding her in his arms.
There was a jerk as he released whatever he was holding, then a thump as they hit the ground. As soon as they were safe, he released her.
‘Sir? The black-’
He cut her off. ‘Its effect has ended. It was inefficient, just like your own actions, recruit.’
‘Yes sir, sorry sir.’
‘Follow, quickly, or I’ll find something worse than a leech to throw you to.’
She stood still for a moment, and tore a strip from her skirt – the gash was still bleeding, but she’d never ask to be transported for medical attention, it wasn’t her decision as to when her mission ended.
She clutched her hand on autopilot, but felt no gun.
She looked up at Taylor’s quickly retreating form and his still-bleeding hands.
‘Blackout ended,’ she whispered, ‘yes sir, whatever you say sir.’ She pressed the strip of skirt to the gash. ‘Thank you sir.’ I love you, sir.