I hear hurricanes ablowing.
I know the end is coming soon.
I fear rivers over flowing.
I hear the voice of rage and ruin.
Bad Moon Rising, Creedence Clearwater Revival
Clicking sounds, softened by the freshly falling snow, floated up from beneath my feet. I held still and watched for movement between the branches of the tree I crouched in, knife in hand. I could just see the first of the Thrall shuffling through the snow like a skeletal dog: it pushed snow aside with its snout, then raised its head, snuffling.
Click-click-click-click! Another Thrall bounded up to the first and repeated the sound. My camo hid me from sight, and even without my camo the predawn light was not much to see by…but these were Hive. Darkness did not concern them. Another Thrall bounded up, drawn by its fellows, and now hisses and growls filled the early morning air.
“Only 3,” said Emma’s soft voice in my ear mic. The Thrall couldn’t hear it, but I nearly winced in spite of that. “I don’t see their Acolyte.”
I wanted to growl. I had given the Hive a pretty clear trail to follow. Why were they not taking the bait?
“Wait…I see 4…6…no, 9 more Thrall headed your way. And a couple of Acolytes. You’ll have 14 there in less than 30 seconds.”
A //nervous rush filled my internals. Any moment now.
“We’re in position.”
More Thrall began bunching up beneath the naked oak tree that served as my perch. One stood on its hind legs and screeched up at the sky. Another bounded up and snag the lowest branch with its claws, trying to gain purchase to climb the slick, icy bark. Then its head separated from its body with explosive force and it fell on its companions – the sound of the shot followed a half-second later.
“No!” someone shouted into my mic, an echo of my own thoughts. I saw movement in my peripheral and saw the Acolytes, almost to my location, now turning toward the source of the shot and sprinting through the trees. The Thrall at my feet likewise were turning to follow their handlers.
I leaped down into their midst to cut them off: this many Thrall would easily overwhelm the sniper’s nest, which judging by the sound and the direction, I took to be Leif’s position. He and his brother lacked the firepower to put down this many Hive before they closed the distance.
It was brutal and fast knife work: the Thrall were keyed up but had nearly forgotten about their previous fascination with the tree they had tracked me to. When the last had fallen I turned and rushed through the trees toward where the premature shot had come from.
The Acolytes had been joined by others, and more Thrall were running to add their strength to the fight. Shots were coming fast now, from several directions: the trap had been sprung too soon and now the hunting party was trying to put down as many Hive as possible before they broke out of the noose we had so carefully laid.
The first Acolyte I encountered turned its weapon on me, but it had no time to discharge before I hacked it down. Its partner sidestepped and took cover behind a tree, the bole of which exploded into a shower of splinters when a sniper round passed through Hive and tree trunk alike. I ran on.
Thrall lay on the ground around Leif and his squat brother, and 2 men so different did not seem likely to be born of the same parents: Leif was a giant of a man with blonde hair and blue eyes, with slabs of muscle so large he seemed nearly deformed. His brother Olaf was shorter than even Father Eriksson, dark of hair and complexion, his rifle comically big in his hands, but he was arguably just as strong as the taller man. They stood back to back, and Thrall were coming within a meter of the men before they were killed. Any moment and they would fall.
I called Arc light to my hand and hurled it at the Thrall nearing the humans, and the crack of a small thunderbolt filled the air with the smell of ozone and hot Light. Thrall fell, and for a moment it appeared I had bought them time. And then my headset filled with screams of warning, too late to do anything about it.
A tree shattered, the bottom half flying into pieces and the rest careening away to lodge against its neighbors to announce the Knight’s arrival, his sword cutting a swath through woods as he charged: snow flew up in a plume before him, obscuring all but his head and glowing triple-eyed gaze. Olaf bravely stood his ground and raised his rifle to shoot the charging behemoth. The Knight roared, the sound deafening, and when his blade struck, nothing was left of Olaf but shattered, steaming pieces and red snow.
I charged as well, trying to close the last few meters. Leif turned, and that giant, brave, stupid man was literally split in half from head to navel by the Knight’s falling sword. The Thrall descended on his remains with shrieks of glee. I slowed my charge. The Knight’s gaze was on me now. Rather than raise my knife I drew my gun and fired.
A wall of Darkness swallowed my shots and those of the hunting party eager to avenge their fallen comrades. I felt heat on my armor and realized the Acolytes were turning their weapons on me. I ran. Traveler forgive me and name me a coward, but I ran, back toward the other sniper nests.
“Father Eriksson!” I said as I fled the Knight’s wrath. A bullet whipped through the air near my head with a crack.
“What?” His voice was heavy.
“That Knight left a trail we can follow. Back to the nest. We can still do this.”
“Yes. Yes we can. Everyone fall back, like we planned. Guardian, we will meet you at the rendezvous point, and you will lead us to the nest.”
“Yes,” I said with fierce //anger. “Yes I will.”