Hope you got your things together.
Hope you are quite prepared to die.
Looks like we’re in for nasty weather.
One eye is taken for an eye.
Bad Moon Rising, Creedence Clearwater Revival
Ebony’s scan pulse flickered over the cave’s entrance, bright beneath the slate gray sky. Father Eriksson and I waited for his results while the rest of the hunting party stood guard.
“It’s deeper than I would expect,” the Ghost admitted after a moment, blinking toward the cave mouth. “The seeder may have opened new passages, or maybe they burrowed them out after they landed. We don’t have the explosives to take it down.”
I looked up at the aforementioned seeder, a spike of gray metal thrusting into the sky like a bony finger. “Any Hive present?” I asked.
Father Eriksson grunted. “They will have power cells. And if the impact opened up caverns like you suspect, they may be unstable. We can use the cells to collapse the tunnels.”
“Hive are experts at reinforcing their nests. That Ghost’s information that raided the Worlds’ Grave told us a lot about how they make them,” said Ebony. His doubt was evident.
“Then we clean out the stragglers and wait for the rest to return. We can hole up inside and let them try to take it back, turn their own nest against them.”
“That sounds like asking the Hive to bottle us up and starve us out, or worse, burrow in behind us,” said Emma, approaching. The wound on her face was still angry and red against her dusky skin. Her dark eyes were baggy with exhaustion.
Father Eriksson grunted. “Then we kill the Wizard and the Knights. Without them, the Thrall will be directionless.” He looked at me for confirmation.
“The Acolytes will still be dangerous, but yes: the Knights and Wizard are the backbone of their structure. It might draw a tomb ship in, however, to reinforce them,” I said.
“A risk. And if that happens, perhaps the Vanguard will send more Guardians.” He looked at me. “Where are your comrades?”
“Most are on Mars right now,” I groused. “They received our message, but it will take time.”
“Then we will soften up the Hive and return to the City with trophies, and bring the wrath of the Vanguard and the Chosen Dead on their heads,” said Father Eriksson decisively. He turned and whistled sharply to the hunting party. They gathered round: 10 weathered men and women altogether, each with a long rifle short of ammo and a long knife blackened by Hive ichor. All but Emma and myself were born into the clan – we were “Firsts”, first generation adopted children that the clan brought in to swell their numbers and grow their connections.
“The Wizard did not attack us in the woods,” Father Eriksson told them. “That means she is most likely here. She will be dangerous if cornered here, and she can destroy us alone, even without her Thrall or Knights. If we find her, let Morc know.” He looked at me pointedly. “She is your kill. The Knights,” he continued, “must be brought down quickly: rifles only. Do not try knife work with them. The first one who brings down a Knight shall hang its head from the Tree and shall be given my father’s rifle.”
This brought murmurs from the others. Emma interrupted. “I’m sorry, what rifle?”
“A weapon passed down 6 generations,” he said. “Only our finest warriors bear it into battle or hunt. When that warrior dies, the clan leaders declare a challenge for who may claim it next. I declare that challenge now to avenge our fallen. Now we go down, teams of 2 and sweep each chamber. If we fall, perhaps we will rise to fight again someday.”
“Only a handful of Thrall,” I said. //Doubt filled me as I examined the last of the Thrall bodies, shot where they had gathered around the piles of bones they had been gnawing upon. We had descended to the bottom chamber.
“Where is the Wizard?” asked one of the hunters, Rill. She was the youngest, mouse-brown hair and with eyes that looked too hard for someone so young.
“She must have been with the others in the field,” I said softly.
Emma knelt near the entrance to the chamber, using leather straps and torn cloth to bind her knife to the barrel of her rifle to make a crude bayonet – she had used her last shot on a Thrall. There were branches of tunnels all around us, but we stood in the largest cavern, lit by green crystals that grew from the wall in jagged spikes. Moths flitted near the light sources, and a huge centipede scurried near Rill’s foot, which she promptly squashed with her heel.
“Father Eriksson,” I said into my com, “we are all clear down here. No Wizard.”
“Very well.” I could hear disappointment in his tone. “Come back up. Everyone return to the entrance.”
I stood and took a step toward Emma, just as a scream of pain ripped through the caves, the sounds bouncing off the walls into a dozen more. I drew my gun in time with Rill.
“What?” asked Emma confusedly. Her wide eyes flicked around the chamber. “Where did that come from?”
“Teams, check in!” I snapped into the com. I didn’t get an answer before the Knight stepped into the chamber, flanked by a pair of Acolytes. They flung a body aside as they entered and charged us.
I snapped off 3 shots, and both Acolytes were down before they even had a chance to fire. The Knight didn’t even slow when the third bullet ripped into its bony hide. But then Rill’s rifle roared, and it staggered. Then Emma let loose a blood-curdling scream and, in spite of Father Eriksson’s warning, flung herself at the Knight with her bayonet.
The blade sank to the hilt in the Knight’s eye and it fell to its knees, clutching at the barrel. Metal groaned as it squeezed. Emma screamed again and thrust her whole weight behind the weapon. The Knight jerked, then collapsed with a clatter of bone. Its sword rattled as it struck the stony earth.
“Well done,” I said, approaching the body.
“Guess the rifle is yours,” said Rill, “seems like you need a new one anyway.” She cycled a fresh round into her weapon. Even as she did so there was another bone-shaking roar, and the second Knight charged in, swinging its cleaver. She ducked and rolled away from its charge without even looking. Emma pulled her weapon free of the dead Knight and leaped away as well, leaving me closest to the Knight. It closed the distance faster than I could raise my weapon and lashed out with a fist.
The cavern rushed past me, and I had just enough time to realize I was flying through the air before I slammed to a sudden stop. There was brief flash of green light and then –
…listen to me! The cold, it is not natural, to be cold, to be here, I don’t want to, she has no soul, does not belong here, listen…
– I was up again with a flash of Light and on my feet, charging back at the Knight without a thought. I felt that sense of //weariness again, but I attacked anyway, grabbing up the fallen Knight’s sword.
The surviving Knight attacked Rill, swinging wildly at the nimble young woman. She slipped aside from his attacks, but he was clearly herding her to a corner. Emma stood rooted to the spot, eyes round with terror. The cavern seemed so large. They were so far away…
I was too slow. There was a crunch, a short scream, and Rill fell, the Knight’s sword cleaving her in 2. It raised its bloody weapon and roared in triumph.
I stopped, //shocked. How could I be so slow? Why couldn’t I reach them?
Emma seized my arm. “We have to get out!”
I stared. “What?”
“We have to run! RUN!”
I ran with her. As we ran I heard the comm fill with screams. We ran up the tunnels, to the entrance.
“Ebony!” I shouted. “Call in the ship!”
“Ebony?” I slowed. I tried to summon him. I stopped. “Ebony?”
I turned around. “We have to go back. My Ghost is gone!”
Emma shook her head. “We can’t help him!”
“I need to go back!” I pushed past her. “Ebony!”
Something pushed against the back of my head. The distinctive click of a hammer being pulled back made me freeze.
“Alone, in the end.” Emma’s voice was…wrong. I turned around. She held my hand cannon…except it wasn’t. It was black, the metal twisted into jagged edges. Emma’s dark skin was ashen, and her eyes glowed with green fire. She bared a smile full of jagged teeth at me as she thrust the barrel into my forehead. “Even Guardians can die, Hunter.” Then the hammer fell.
…darkness, cold, only Darkness, listen to me!…