Cathedral, Part 3 of 3

At last we reach the end of this series. I shall be posting new content every Tuesday. I hope you enjoy!

 

The party gathered around the cube hovering in the center of the room, glancing around at the blank white walls and the single white door through which they had just escaped.

“What is this place? What is this cube?” asked Antonio, the only one who had never been in the white room before.

“We’re not sure,” admitted Nero.

“I can see it,” said Albus.

The rest of the party stared at him, astonished.

“But you’re blind!” exclaimed Cheng.

“I know. But I can see the cube.” He pointed at it. The others frowned.

Red stroked his chin, leaning toward the cube. “I wonder….” he muttered. “Nero, you said there were keyholes on each side?”

“Yeah….”

Red took the scarlet key from his pocket, and carefully inserted it into the nearest side. The cube pulsed momentarily, and then became the same color as the key.

“Let me try that!” exclaimed Cheng, taking out her orange key.

The cube pulsed again and turned orange.

The others quickly pulled out their keys. Violet was the next to insert her purple key.

“Why won’t it go in?” she said exasperatedly.

“Maybe there’s an order?” suggested Adrina from her wheelchair. “Red, orange – maybe the color sequence? Who has the yellow key again?”

Aurus inserted his key and the cube turned yellow. Giovani’s turned it green. Adrina’s blue. Finally, Violet successfully put hers in, turning it purple. Then it pulsed again, much more strongly this time, sending out bright light. The party recoiled, save for Albus, who was watching the cube with intense fascination. They covered their eyes as a bright light covered the room, flashing with the brevity and intensity of a lightning bolt.

In an instant it was gone. They looked. There, in the center, in place of the cube, was a single white key, larger and more ornate than the other six. Albus stared at it with an odd fixation. He began to reach out for it; however, before he could make his intention clear, Nero had already snatched it up.

“Look!” exclaimed Adrina, pointing at the wall across from the entrance. There, a new door had appeared.

“Come on,” said Red. “We might as well see where it leads. As peaceful as this place is, I’d like to eat some time in the future.”

Cheng pushed open the door, and then the party stopped, mouths dropping at the sight before them.

The door opened out to a dark town, straight to a road that wound up a hill, up to the very top, where lay a great cathedral. Most of the party recognized it instantly, and the lightning that suddenly flashed through the sky only made the memories clearer. But none of the had anticipated the dark clouds covering the sky, which were black tinted with reds and violets and greens that seemed to have little correspondence with the lightning strikes. Disquietingly, the lightning did not boom, but rather crack, as though muffled. But the most eerie feature of the town was the utter absence of any person. It was empty.

Nero breathed in the must and humidity and stepped onto the street. “Right. Let’s spread out, figure out what’s going on here.”

“Not sure that’s such a good idea,” said Albus, pointing up at the cathedral. “We need to go there.”

“You can see that?” Nero replied. “Anyway, I thought we’d only send a couple people up there. The rest can see to the rest of the town.”

They split up, Nero and Albus moving up the road toward the cathedral while the others departed in groups along the side streets. None of them noticed a sound like that of a rainmaker, or the black form of Amocualli as it stepped out of the white room, the final pieces of its headdress and cloak growing out of it as it massaged its hand.

Nero and Albus walked warily up the street, eyes glancing down every side street they passed. The emptiness was almost tangible.

That was when they heard the scream. They twisted around, Nero peering off toward the noise somewhere to their right, the direction Giovani, Aurus, and Antonio had gone.

“What is it?” said Albus.

More screaming. Shouts. Violet, Red, Adrina, and Cheng appeared from the left, worried looks on their faces.

“What’s going on?” Violet asked.

They found out soon enough. They heard the pounding of feet on the road, and the remainder of the party appeared – sans Antonio – dogged by a necroid and Amocualli itself. Amocualli stared at them with its bulging, unblinking eyes as its curled-back lips revealed a malevolent grin.

“What happened?” asked Cheng, catching Giovani.

“That monster happened! It grabbed Antonio and, well….” he indicated the necroid. The others gasped.

“Let’s go!” ordered Red.

The necroid ran at them, scattering them. However, its claws managed to rake Nero’s shoulder. Nero fell to the ground and then tossed the key at Albus.

“Get to the cathedral!” he shouted.

Albus caught it and, with one last look in Nero’s direction, turned and ran. The others followed close behind.

At last they reached the cathedral; Cheng and Red pushed open the doors, revealing the narrow red carpet leading up to a dim altar that Red and Adrina recognized from just a few months ago. Albus’s eyes bulged – it almost didn’t matter that he was blind, he could see everything and more, from the details of the cathedral interior as well as what seemed to be fog-like apparitions in the pews, and the terrifying face of Amocualli, standing in the aisle waiting for them.

“At last you’ve arrived,” he said in his slow voice. “But you should turn back, I think. I was not born in the depths of Chaos, travel through a thousand ages of fire and predation, and break loose of my chains only to be stopped by mere children.”

“Who are you?” asked Red boldly.

“I am Amocualli.” It moved forward. “I was once great in these lands, until those original dwellers banded together and used that key to chain me to a temple of stone – a prison of stone. But even stone is mortal, and your people march on toward destruction only I was once capable of, and I was freed, free to usher in a new era of death and chaos.”

“You’re sick,” said Adrina. She was now at the front of the group as they backed away from the advancing Amocualli.

“No, my dear, you are. I can make it better. It will be painless, perhaps even sweet….”

Red stepped forward. “Leave her alone!”

Then he punched Amocualli in the face.

Amocualli stumbled back, just as surprised as everyone else in the room. Red quickly turned to Albus. “Quick! Get the key to the altar!”

“Right!” Albus ran forward, passing Amocualli, who swiped at him as he went by.

“No!” Amocualli cried, a distinct note of fear in its voice. “I deny this!”

It advanced upon the others, slapping down Red and reaching for Adrina. It gripped her face, pulling her out of her wheelchair and into the air. “Serve me!” it hissed.

Albus reached the altar. There, on the very top, was a keyhole. He plunged the key in.

A force blew him back as a light blasted from the altar like that which had come from the cube. Only this was accompanied by a wind, pulling everything toward the altar.

“No!” cried Amocualli desperately, still holding tight to Adrina. Red and Violet walked forward, fighting the wind, and laid blow after blow on Amocualli in an attempt to free Adrina.

From the altar, tendrils of light issued out of the bright pulsing, reaching up the aisle. They advanced until they curled around Amocualli, pulling it back toward the altar. But even that didn’t seem to stop it.

Cheng, Aurus, and Giovani raced forward and delivered their own blows to Amocualli. Suddenly, as all six landed a blow upon it, a white light shown between them and Amocualli. It dropped Adrina, quickly caught by Red, and its wide eyes bulged bigger than ever as it suddenly flew back toward the altar, until it was completely engulfed by the light.

Then the light shone only brighter, until the whiteness was all they could see.

 

Violet opened her eyes. The cathedral was gone, replaced by … the room at the end of the boys’ wing. She got up, and saw that everyone else was there, even Nero, though Antonio was absent. The door was closed, but there were no sounds from outside it. Slowly, the others began to awake.

“How’d we get back here?” Giovani wondered.

“How’d anything in the last couple hours work?” Red pointed out, Adrina still in his arms. “Just don’t question it.”

They wandered out of the room, into the living room which had been destroyed. The window was still broken; Violet approached it and stepped outside. The devourers were gone. And in the side of the hill, she could see new sprouts beginning to grow.

Invasion, Part 2 of 3

Of the dozen people in that dark room, none of them were wearing lab coats. While this may not have seemed so strange, it felt strange for each of them, who were used to pristine labs and controlled environments. There wasn’t very must control left in the world, though, and circumstances had required these men to abandon their lab coats and their pristine labs in favor of more controversial means and settings.

“What’s the news?” asked the man at the head of the table.

“The necroids have spread across eastern North America, and we have increasing reports in China, Japan, Australia, and the entirety of Europe.”

“Also,” said another. “There are reports of strange beasts attacking people. We’ve been tracking the reports, and they seem to correlate with the path Amocualli has been taking.”

“Thank you,” said the head. “Now, Dr. Steltson, what was the report you wished to discuss?”

The man named Steltson leaned forward, resting his arms on the table. “My team investigated the, er, awakening site. While we were there, we found a key. Upon touch, however, it split six ways, into six separate keys, all a different color: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet.

“Upon closer examination at our labs, we found that people seem to form a sort of affinity with either one or some of the keys. While these were generally weak with most people, we think finding someone with a powerful affinity could be a clue toward defeating Amocualli.”

“Very good. Have you found any sufficient persons?”

“Three, sir. Two, sisters, show an affinity toward the violet and blue, respectively. The other shows an affinity for all six. We have them in the school by one of our bases.”

“Wait, these are children?”

“Yes. All around four to six, sir.”

The man who was leading the meeting shook his head. “Where are the keys, then?”

“We’re keeping half of them at the base with the three children, and we moved the other half to our secondary base.”

“Very good. The rest of you, I want you to begin pooling your resources to locating the rest of these key people.

“They may be our only hope.”

* * * *

Giovani sat in the common room, fingering his key absently as he considered the situation. No one had left the building ever since Antonio had run in; they had put him in a spare bedroom in the boys’ wing. The rest of them were taking turns watching from the roof, so that they had extra warning if and when the devourers returned.

He looked up at a soft step on the carpet. It was Violet, who walked over toward him. Her bracelets jangled as she sat down next to him.

“You alright?” she asked.

“Yeah. Just hoping we’re prepared for attack,” he replied.

“Hm. If we could make more use of that tank, but it seems better used for long-range combat. Our weapon stores aren’t looking very good right now, especially after our trip.”

Giovani nodded in agreement. “Antonio said there were dozens and dozens of them. What’s the most we’ve fought? Maybe thirty necroids, like when some of us got trapped at the school? And these are supposed to be worse.”

“Yeah.” Violet eyed Giovani’s key, and took out her own. “It’s a pity we haven’t had time to examine these. I’d love to see what they can actually do.”

* *

Silence. The moon shone through the window, illuminating the dark, empty common room. The doors of the wings were closed, each occupant asleep in their beds, save for one, Aurus, who stood the roof, watching the now barren landscape for any sign of the devourers.

He crouched. A noise. Or rather, a number of noises. Screams, shrieks – not of fear, but antagonism. Aurus’s eyes bulged as the sources became clear in the light of the moon. He turned around. They were coming from everywhere.

Aurus dashed to the ladder, climbing down swiftly and then racing into the common room, making as loud of a ruckus as he could.

“We’re under attack! Get up!” he shouted, opening every door he could find.

The others quickly responded, assembling in the common room with their weapons. Most of them hadn’t bothered to change into pajamas when they had gone to bed, and now they got up, ready for action.

“Red, Cheng, Violet, Albus, to the front door!” ordered Nero. “Aurus, back on the roof. Stay near the ladder, though. Adrina, watch the window. Giovani, Antonio, help me move some of the furniture for a barricade.”

They did as they were told. Red raced to the front door, which was already suffering under the assault of the devourers.

“Right. Albus, keep that shotgun steady, and fire when we tell you,” said Violet.

Albus nodded. Red stared down the door, his own rifle at the ready. He took a deep breath. He could take whatever came through there.

The door broke. Red nearly jumped in surprise as nearly half a dozen devourers poured into the room. Antonio had been right about them. Their most prominent feature was their gaping, razor-toothed mouths.

“Shoot!” Violet cried. Albus shot. Three down. But six more rushed into their places.

The others opened fire, cutting down the devourers. The four of them might just be able to hold the door, seeing as it was the best choke point in the facility, but that was until they ran out of bullets. Reloading was going to be a nightmare.

That was when he heard the scream. Adrina’s scream. He and Violet looked back and raced away, into the common room. There, the devourers had finally broken into the window. Adrina sat in her wheelchair, firing a pistol at the nearest one, but there were too many coming through. Behind them, Cheng was helping Albus back to the common room, closely pursued by the devourers from the front door. And that was when Red saw it.

It stood in the doorway, gliding inside, black and terrible. It’s bulging, lidless eyes stared at him, and its curled-back lips and yellow teeth seemed to smile. It had one black hand pointing toward the common room, egging the devourers onward.

“Fall back!” Red called. “We need a more defensive position!”

“Into here!” cried Nero, standing in the boys’ wing with Antonio and Giovani. “Do you all have your keys?”

They all nodded as they entered the wing, Nero closing the door behind them all. There was a crunch as a devourer hit the door.

“Right, all the way to the back!” Nero ran to the last door and took out his black key.

“Are you sure about this?” asked Violet. “We don’t know what to do with that room. What if they can get through?”

“They won’t get through,” Nero promised, putting the key into the lock and twisting. The familiar white chamber opened up before him. “Quickly!”

Behind, the door burst open, the devourers rushing into the wing after them. Nero ushered them inside, before stepping in himself, the devourers almost upon him. One reached out its hand to attack him, just as he closed the door. There was a snap, and its hand fell to the ground, severed from its body. The party sighed collectively, and turned to the cube in the center of the room.

And none of them noticed as the devourer’s hand changed, morphing into the hand of Amocualli.

Warning, Part 1 of 3

This is the first part of a series of three which will conclude the long Eight series I’ve been working on the last couple months. Glad you all have been hanging in there with me, and I hope you enjoy this!

The great mushroom vanished as the fire dissipated, coiling up high into the atmosphere above a massive crater left in its wake, ground zero for the destruction of what was once a proud city of steel. Now it was a city of ash.

As the fire left and the smoke cleared, however, a single figure became visible at the very heart of the crater. It walked a short distance, over to a chair that materialized out of he ashen debris. A black throne, simple, tall. The figure sat down.

High above, a drone circled around the site, its camera trained directly on the figure as, far away, its owners reacted in a panic at the sight of the odd figure where they knew nothing ought to have survived. The figure watched the drone wheeling about, its face displaying the closest thing it could muster to triumph.

In moments, a series of helicopters surrounded the crater and a battalion of soldiers raced in, guns pointed at the figure in the center, none of their skin showing so as to deter the radiation.

The figure was dressed in a simple black robe, with a high collar that tailed away into points. It wore a tall, square headdress that was topped in a similar fashion to the collar. Its face was gray, the sort of color and texture one might expect of a long-buried mummy. Under a wide, flat nose, its lips were curled back to reveal its full set of teeth, yellowed and worn, forever in some kind of demonic grin. But none of this was to compare with its eyes, which were simple, yet large and unblinking so that, if they were to rest on a person, that person might fear as though the eyes would never leave them as long as they lived.

The soldiers reached the figure, their guns pointed at it as one stepped forward.

“In the name of the United States of America, we demand to know who you are and where you come from.”

The figure took a moment to respond; when it did, it spoke in a slow voice which sounded as though it were bored.

“I am Amocualli. I have been awakened. I shall make you my servants and send you against your loved ones, until they join me or perish fighting. I shall devour your children, and leave your spouses destitute and starving in the wilderness I create. Then I shall return the earth to a barren wasteland, and so have peace.”

No one could see the reactions of the soldiers beneath their dark helmets, but it was obvious what they thought of this as they opened fire, their bullets tearing into this Amocualli. But when the last shot was fired and the smoke cleared, the robe was just as whole as it had always been, and the face was without damage. The soldier who had spoken stepped toward his enemy.

Amocualli stood and stretched out his hand, grabbing hold of the soldier’s helmet. With one gesture, it came clear off. The soldier screamed and collapsed, a searing sound emanating from his face. But after a few moments, under the horrified eyes of his comrades, the screams of pain turned to screams of rage and hunger, and the first of many necroids rose from the ground.

 

* * Ten years later… * *

Laughter emanated from the tank as it rolled up the road toward a hill, upon which rested its inhabitant’s home. Inside the tank, Red wiped away tears as his mirth died down.

“Wow, Nero,” he said. “I never knew you could be so funny.”

“Not all the books I read are boring philosophical treatises,” Nero replied.

“Yeah,” added Adrina, Violet holding her tight on her lap. “Some of them are funny philosophical treatises.”

“How do they manage that?” Red asked.

“Um, guys,” Cheng’s voice called to them from the driver’s seat, who the others realized had been the only one not joining in on their laughter. “Can you all take a look outside?”

Giovani, the closest to the exit, opened the hatch and climbed out on top, soon followed by five of the others. They didn’t say a word.

“What is it? What’s wrong?” asked Albus, who was the only one (with Cheng) to remain in his seat. He stared vaguely in the direction of the hatch. “I can’t see anything.”

Aurus popped his head back down. “The forest is gone. The vegetation is gone. It’s just a barren wasteland.”

It was true. The other five stared out over their home, barely able to recognize it. It wasn’t just that the forest was gone, though; every tree, every root, every wood chip had vanished, as though there had never been anything there but dust and rock. There was no sound: not the singing of birds, the scuffling of rodents, the hum of insects. Nothing.

But their facility still stood at the top of the hill, whole, unblemished. As Cheng parked the tank at the entrance, the others raced inside, anxious to check that everything was where it ought to be. But inside was just as they had left it. Whatever had destroyed the forest had failed to access the facility; or, perhaps more disturbing, had avoided the facility.

“Do you think the school is still there?” Giovani asked as they assembled from checking their rooms in the common area, Cheng leading Aurus inside finally.

“Unless whatever destroyed the forest could also take out brick,” said Aurus.

“I wouldn’t put it past them,” replied Adrina, back in a wheelchair.

“I don’t know,” said Nero.

A knock on the door. They all froze, and Red walked carefully out of the room to the door.

“Antonio?” The door shut as he entered the facility.

“Red, thank goodness! I saw the tank arrive at the top of the hill, and I knew it had to be you all!”

Red and Antonio returned to the common room, all the others staring at the newcomer.

“What happened?” asked Violet concernedly.

“Devourers, and–”

“What’s a devourer?”

“What? Oh, yes, you’re not as well-traveled as I. They’ve been cropping up all over recently, especially just north of here. They’re…” He shuddered. “It’s like if you made a necroid out of a necroid. Can you imagine? All that’s left of them is the skeleton and a digestive tract. But that wasn’t the worst of it.

“When they first arrived, the devourers, there was something else with them, some person, or not-person. All dressed in black, with a terrifying face. But the eyes! He looked up at me, and it was like he could see my mind, everything I’ve ever thought. And he kept staring, and I couldn’t move for what seemed hours. Then he just turned away, looking up at the facility here.

“I think he’s coming for you.”

Desert Facility, part 2

Albus slowly blinked his eyes open. His head hurt, a lot. It took him a long while before he could move, not because he was paralyzed, but because of the pain coursing through his body, which had roughly the same effect. He had landed on something hard – it felt like steel – which he guessed belonged to the elevator that had once traveled up and down the shaft he and the others occupied now.

The groans of four other voices told him the others were alive. He sat up, looking around, but he couldn’t see anything in the blackness this far below.

“Everyone alright?” he asked.

“Sh! Not so loud!” whispered Cheng. “They’re still up there!”

He heard Nero, Aurus, Red, and Cheng scuffling around, clattering some as they picked up their weapons. Albus remained still, remembering where he was. They were in a facility in the middle of the desert, and a horde of monsters had attacked them, causing them to fall in the elevator shaft during their defense. Naturally the monsters were still up there, waiting for them to come back up, or for some scout to confirm all their deaths.

There was a clicking sound from above, like some large insect snapping its mandibles in the beginning of a warning. It was cut short by a gunshot, and it fell with a clatter onto the elevator. There were malevolent screams from above.

“Quick, in here!” called Red from somewhere to Albus’s left. He crawled along the top of the elevator, until he felt Red’s hand grip his arm.

“You feeling alright?” Red asked him. More gunfire.

“Yeah, I’m fine. It’s just so dark.”

“Um…” Red helped him though the emergency panel into the elevator. A moment later, two more pairs of feet joined him. The noises of the monsters deafened, but not by much. More shots.

They forced their way through the door, which they closed after them. The monsters were muffled, but they were still coming.

“Wow,” said Cheng.

“What is it?” asked Albus. “Do you see something?”

“Yeah, we’re in some kind of hangar. I see a whole lot of somethings.”

“Then why is everything bla…” it suddenly dawned on him. He, Albus, was blind.

* *

Violet and Adrina sat on the floor of the sealed vault, arms around each other for comfort. Giovani sat nearby, staring with them at the vault door, from which loud bangs and crashes emanated as the monsters outside attempted to get in. But these noises were sporadic and half-hearted; Giovvani suspected that the monsters had tried to get in before, and had failed that time. Eventually, they stopped, the monsters having resigned themselves to waiting out their prey.

Well, waiting them out would work. They had no food in here, no water. Giovani even worried if they had air enough for them to be concerned with their lack of food and water.

Agitated, Giovani stood up, scouring the room again for a way out. Nothing. If they were going to get out, they were going to have to rely on their friends, trapped somewhere outside of the vault.

* *

Cheng grinned, surveyed the wreckage around her. The ruined remains of dozens of tanks, humvees, choppers, and jets lay scattered around the hangar, either in the place the facility creators had intended, or else tossed around by the more expressive of the monsters that had previously attacked this place.

“Cheng!” called Nero. “Is there anything we can use here?”

“Does a necroid eat brains? Yeah!” she replied.

“Right! Cheng, take Red and look for any weapons you can find. Aurus, you and I will hold off the monsters here. We’ve got a good choke with this elevator.”

“Okay.”

Cheng looked behind her toward the elevator. Albus sat on the ground, eyes open, but seeing nothing. Nero and Aurus faced the elevator, guns at the ready for anything that came after them. They could still hear the muffled cries of the monsters descending through the shaft.

Red pulled her away, and they raced further into the hangar, searching the destroyed vehicles. Unfortunately, all of their damage seemed to be concentrated around their weapons systems. Cheng frowned. She had never seen destruction by monsters so careful, so systematic, that it was almost premeditated.

Behind them, the monsters had reached the bottom of the shaft. They heard the gunfire of Nero and Aurus keeping the monsters at bay, but they knew now they only had a limited time. They needed to find something fast.

They stopped. There, before them, was a huge, steel door, blemished by burns and what appeared to be gunfire, but undented, whole.

“Let’s try behind there,” said Cheng, racing toward the door.

At the base stood a small panel, just enough to fit one’s thumb on it. Cheng had seen enough sci-fi to know what it was for.

“Welcome, Cheng Yue,” said a feminine voice. The door slowly slid open.

Cheng quickly overcame her astonishment that the computer knew her name, and gaped at the sight behind the door.

There, in undiminished, unblemished, glory, stood a large tank. It was obviously some kind of prototype, owing to the non-existent paint job, but that didn’t stop Cheng from nearly squealing in delight, despite their situation.

“Can you drive this?” Red asked as they raced toward the tank.

“I think so. I’ve played a couple good tank sims. Oo! Check over there while I try starting her up.” She pointed toward a series of containers along the wall.

Cheng climbed up and dropped herself inside, quickly establishing the chair that belonged to the pilot. The keys lay on the seat, which she put in the ignition. The engine revved to life, and Cheng grinned broadly.

“Now, this should be forward,” she said, working the controls. The tank moved forward. “Left. Right. Good.”

Red appeared at the entrance. “You should see all the weapons they have in these,” he said, handing down one of the containers.

“Nice. Now, take the turret.”

“Sweet!”

Together, they rolled out into the hangar. Cheng had a screen in front of her that displayed what was ahead of them, and steered them toward the elevator, where Nero and Aurus were busy fending off the smaller monsters that could fit through.

“Ready?” Cheng asked.

“Yep. Just let me decide between laser or machine gun.”

“What? That’s not even a debate! Definitely laser.”

A moment later, a red beam shot out from the cannon, hitting a monster crawling out of the elevator. It screamed for a moment, then fell silent.

Cheng climbed out of the tank. “Nero, Aurus, Albus! Get over here!”

The three raced to the tank, Aurus helping Albus along. A moment later, they were all inside.

“Red, keep that laser on the elevator. Cheng, the hangar door is that way. He pointed in the direction away from the elevator.

“Hangar door…”

“They have to have some way to get all these vehicles out, right?”

* *

Giovani and Violet stood, the latter still holding Adrina. There were screams from outside, a mixture of anger, pain, and…fear? A moment later the sounds were gone, replaced by the sound of the combination. The door opened.

There stood Nero, a huge tank behind him that had crushed half the building on its way in. The charred remains of a dozen monsters lay around them.

“Come on,” he said. “We’re getting out of here.”

Desert Facility, part 1

“Are you sure that’s the right place?”

Red put his hands on his hips as he and the rest of the group surveyed the desert hill upon which stood the facility they had been traveling a week to find. Giovani frowned. In his dream, it had looked much nicer. Now, there were scorch marks and cracks all over the walls. The front door was busted down, and the hill was littered with debris.

“I’m pretty sure,” said Giovani. “At least it’s recognizable.”

They trudged up the hill, glancing around at the debris as they did. Something had happened here, and they had the feeling they were being watched. Red was the first to the door. He pushed it open and, tiptoeing, stepped into the building.

Crash! Red looked up, just in time to see a basket of debris tip down, spilling metal all over the ground at his feet. Everyone was silent for a moment, until the last bit of metal stopped clanging against the ground.

“What in the world was that?” asked Cheng.

“Looks like some kind of trap,” said Albus. “Good thing we avoided it.”

Nero frowned. “Indeed.”

They stepped carefully into the facility, Red clearing away some of the debris from the trap so that Adrina could come in, as well as their cart of supplies. The interior was just as wrecked as the outside. Glass littered the floor, which was covered in long-dried pools of blood and chunks of concrete displaced from the walls.

“Everyone spread out and look for a large, steel vault,” Giovani said quietly.

They split up; Red, Cheng, and Nero continued forward, while Aurus and Albus bore right and Giovani bore left with Adrina and Violet. The girls had abandoned Adrina’s wheelchair, owing to the rough terrain, and Violet had opted to carry her sister instead. Now, the wheelchair rested beside their cart of supplies.

“What happened here?” Adrina wondered aloud as they walked.

“It looks like there was a fight,” Violet replied, watching the ground so as to keep from stepping on sharp objects. She stepped over a bit of the wall that had certainly not been painted red on the inside.

“It seems like the fight didn’t happen too long ago,” said Giovani. “I mean, as opposed to happening right around the Outbreak. If it had happened ten years ago, I would have expected this place to be much more of a ruin.”

“Yeah…”

They rounded a corner, coming into a large room at the very heart of the facility. There, at the far end, was the vault. Between them and it, however, was one of the most destroyed areas of the building, where obviously the most intense fighting had taken place. But the vault itself was clean, pristine even.

It was also set up a little differently than Giovani remembered. The combination was gone, and instead there was what looked like a thumbprint scanner. The three approached the vault carefully. Giovani placed his thumb on the scanner, just to see what it would do. A beat.

“Welcome, Giovani Lucas,” said a disembodied, robotic female voice. “Please enter the combination to open the vault.”

A small compartment in the vault door opened, revealing the combination lock that Giovani remembered. He stared at it for a long moment, though. How did it know who he was?

* *

Screams. Not like those of bystanders when a building explodes, but rather the roars of triumph from the perpetrators. And these the eight of them heard now were even more terrifying, more alien, than even that.

“Monsters!” said Albus, exchanging a fearful glance with Aurus. “We need to get to the others.”

They raced back through the facility the way they had come, returning all the way to the atrium. Red, Cheng, and Nero had already arrived there; Cheng was pulling the cart over the rough ground, while Red folded up Adrina’s wheelchair and Nero looked out the door.

“What is it?” asked Albus, running up to Nero while Aurus helped Cheng with the cart.

“Everything. We’re surrounded.”

They were indeed. And it did seem as though every sort of monster they had ever encountered was clambering up the hill toward them, including several Albus didn’t recognize. There were necroids, razor-clawed ursics, hairy tarantellids, scaled sauropods, four-headed serpenids, and a whole host of even more unspeakable creatures.

“We have a plan, right?” asked Aurus.

Nero turned to him, and for once Albus felt pure fear – he could tell Nero had nothing.

“We could fight them off,” suggested Red.

“There’s too many.”

“Then let’s find a place to hide. Do you think the vault would stop them?”

“We could try that elevator we found,” said Cheng.

“That’s better than nothing,” replied Aurus. “Let’s go.”

* *

Click. As Giovani rolled the combination to the final number, the vault opened, just enough for him to pull it the rest of the way. They could hear the sound of fighting and fleeing behind them – the monsters must have entered the building.

“Quick, inside!”

The three of them hurried into the vault, Giovani closing the door behind the other two. He sighed. Hopefully, nothing could get through that door. He turned around.

There, on three felt pads, were three keys, each one a different color: blue, purple, and green. The three stood there, mesmerized, until each reached forward and took a key; Giovani took green, Adrina took blue, and Violet had purple.

“I guess this gives us a key for every color of the rainbow,” Giovani said.

“Plus one for black. I wonder if there’s a white key,” added Violet.

Boom! The vault door shuddered with the impact of one of the monsters from outside.

“We’ll have to get out of here first to find out,” said Adrina.

Another boom reverberated around the vault, shaking the three inside.

“If they don’t get in…”

* *

The elevator didn’t actually work. Instead, the party resorted to shooting down any of the monsters that made it to that area while Red and Cheng slowly forced the door open. Then they climbed down, using any rope they had brought to keep themselves secure in what appeared to be a near-bottomless drop, all while staying the continued advance of the monsters, which steadily destroyed more and more of the area around them, keeping the party from getting a good bottleneck in which to concentrate their fire.

The cable in the center of the shaft was the first part of it to go, severed by the claws of an ursic. Then, as a squad of tarantellids advanced on them, their spidery legs knocking on the shaft walls, the party fell, one by one, into the darkness…

The Snake

The sun touched the horizon as the party came to a stop, each member taking a short breather before they set up for camp.

“Right, now we can eat,” said Adrina, wheeling over to the cart that held their heavier survival equipment and their water.

“Too tired,” moaned Cheng from her position face down on the ground. “Should skip.”

“Rina, honey, let’s wait for everyone to collect themselves,” Violet ordered. “Cheng, don’t fall asleep just yet. We need to set up camp first.”

“If by ‘set up camp’ you mean roll out the sleeping bags and pass around the canned food,” commented Nero.

“Well, at least we don’t have to cook anything,” replied Cheng, getting up under Violet’s glaring eyes.

“Though it would all likely taste better that way,” said Giovani from the front of the group.

“Red, would you mind passing out some of the cans?” Violet asked.

He sighed, standing up from his position by the cart. “Alright.”

He passed out a can to each, along with silverware. Then he sat himself on the armrest of Adrina’s wheelchair, while the rest scattered themselves around the area.

“Goodness. Your sister can be so bossy sometimes,” he muttered to Adrina.

“Tell me about it,” she replied.

“I’m not bossy!” snapped Violet from some distance behind them. “I’m just…I like order.”

“And there’s nothing wrong with that,” Albus cut in. “A big trip like this needs some organization.”

* * *

“What’s this?”

As the light of dawn illuminated the hills and mountains around them, in the closer vicinity the party blinked open their eyes to find a huge, deep purple coil wrapped around the perimeter of their campsite.

“It appears to be some kind of snake,” Nero observed, crouching over it and examining the scaled pattern.

“Pretty big snake,” Cheng remarked. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen one able to wrap around eight people relatively spread out more than ten times.”

“Which probably means we should kill it,” said Red, taking a hatchet from the cart. “Where’s the head?”

“I have no idea,” Nero told him. “Just whack it somewhere.”

Red’s hatchet descended upon the violet body, cutting the first of many coils in two.

* * *

Adrina’s eyes opened wide with the surprise that had jolted her awake. She heard something, very faintly. She propped herself up, trying to confirm the smooth crunching of dust and rock and the near-silent hiss.

Despite the myriad of stars displayed above her and the moon slowly moving through the heavens, the only thing she saw in the darkness was movement, the rippling of a reflection.

“Vi?” she said apprehensively.

“WhudizitRina?” came the muffled reply. “Mtryintusleep.”

“I think that snake is back.”

There was a ruffling of a sleeping bag, and Adrina saw Violet’s form rising from the ground, the night lights reflecting off her jewelry. Violet looked at her watch, and then crawled over to Adrina.

“Do you have any idea what time it is?” Violet grumbled.

“Look!” Adrina pointed out at another sight of movement, this one a quarter of the way around the camp from the last sighting.

“Ugh! There’s nothing there. Go back to bed.”

“Don’t you want to be sure, in case something’s stalking us?” Adrina looked straight into Violet’s eyes, her own deadly serious.

“Fine.” Violet crawled back to her sleeping bag and to her backpack, from which she produced a flashlight. She crawled back to Adrina, clicking it on. “See, there’s nothing–”

Its jaws opened wide as it reared back, eyes squinting in the sudden flame of the flashlight. Violet’s own jaw dropped, her eyes bulging at the sight. Then the snake lunged, striking the flashlight and knocking it out of Violet’s hand.

The body followed quickly, passing through the air until it reached Adrina with a hiss that made combat with the girl’s scream. In a moment the head disappeared and reappeared on her other side, the body curling around her waist.

Around them, the rest of the party were waking up, some more quickly than others. Nero, Albus, and Red where already on their feet, racing toward Adrina’s voice and the flashlight, still partially illuminating the scene. Violet quickly recovered, lunging for the snake’s head. She missed, falling to the ground as the snake made another circuit around Adrina, who in vain tried to pull the snake off of her.

“Get off of me!” she growled.

Red picked up the hatchet from the cart, wielding it wildly as he rushed at the serpent.

“Rina, calm down,” said Nero. “Puff out your chest and your stomach – that’ll make it harder for it to choke you or crush you.”

Those already not in the middle of the action were beginning to realize what was happening, and they began scrambling for their weapons. Red brought the hatchet down on the serpent’s body, severing it. But it didn’t fall slack. The head turned toward Red, hissing angrily, before continuing its coil around Adrina. Red looked back at the wound he had made: it had vanished.

“Go for the head!” Nero barked.

The serpent had pinned Adrina’s arms to her sides and was working down to her legs. Her eyes bulged not just with fear, but also the slowly increasing pressure the snake put on her.

“Get off of my sister!” shouted Violet, scratching at it with her nails in a vain attempt to pry it off of Adrina.

“Do we have any acids or fast-acting concrete?” asked Cheng, wielding a pistol.

“Do I look crazy?” Giovani replied as he rummaged through his things in search of a weapon.

“Maybe you should have added them to the packing list,” said Nero, stepping back from the main action, looking around at the coils that encircled the camp. “Red, sever the snake again!”

“You said–”

“Just do it!”

Red sliced the snake right where it was beginning to coil around Adrina. The light illuminated it as the tail end wiggled free for a moment, before reattaching itself, as though there had been no cut in the first place. Red looked back at Nero, but he had vanished into the darkness.

Adrina was wrapped up entirely, from her shoulders to her ankles. The head rested on the ground as its coils raised Adrina into the air, poised right over the wide jaws. Her feet entered its mouth, making it near impossible to get at the head.

“No!” screamed Violet, trying to throttle any part of the body she could get her hands on.

Adrina’s mouth was wide open as she took deep breaths, trying to accommodate for the serpent crushing her ribs.

Boom!

All at once, the snake fell limp. Adrina fell to the ground, coughing as she began to climb out with the help of Violet and Red.

“So the brain was at the tail,” came Nero’s voice.

“How are you feeling?” asked Violet, craddling Adrina.

“I think I broke a rib.”

“Well, sounds like you’ll have to stay in a wheelchair and avoid physical activities,” said Red with a wry smile. “Now I just hope this is the worst we come across on this trip.”

Embarkation

“That’s going to take you forever,” said Cheng, leaning over Giovani’s shoulder at the computer screen displaying a satellite map of the planet. “Besides, this is really old. Do you know when the last satellite came down? Ages ago!”

“Anyway, I don’t think that place you saw is something that would even show up on a map like this,” added Nero from the chair beside the two of them.

“I thought you were for finding this other facility,” snapped Giovani, not taking his eyes from the screen.

“I’m not. I’m being realistic. Were there any clues about where it might be located?”

“Desert as far as the eye could see? I’m pretty sure it’s somewhere in the south or southwest.”

“That sounds reasonable. Still, that’s a pretty big area to cover. Isn’t there something to look for, in case it doesn’t show up on the map?”

Giovani sighed and turned toward Nero. “Okay, look. If the facility was finished before the satellites started going down, then there was an image of it, and it was probably edited. If it was edited, it’s likely that it’s obvious that the image has been edited. Hasn’t Cheng ever shown you the image of our facility?”

Nero shook his head.

“It doesn’t show up on the map,” Cheng informed him. “But you can tell that the area around it was edited, since there’s a cloud passing over the woods that has a square corner missing right around where our facility should be.”

“I see.”

“Anyway,” said Giovani sternly. “Don’t you have some packing to do?”

Nero took the hint. “Come on, Cheng. Let’s go stuff our backpacks.”

* * *

“You’re not going.” declared Violet, her bracelets clattering as she wagged her finger.

“But Vi…” pleaded Adrina.

“Look, even if Giovani does manage to find this other facility on the map, which is unlikely, I doubt there’s anything of value there that requires your presence.”

“It’s because of this, isn’t it?” Adrina said, indicating her wheelchair. “You think I’ll slow you all down.”

“No, it’s not…look, I’m not even going. I just think the whole trip is a bad idea.”

“Just because you never get out doesn’t mean I can’t.”

“The reason I never get out is because there’s no where to get out to.”

“Well, there is now.”

“A wild goose chase. That’s all it is! I don’t want you endangering your life on some stupid hunch from Giovani.”

“But-”

“No! That’s my final word on it!”

Adrina let out an exhasperated sigh, leaning on her arm in defeat. “You never let me do anything.”

“No, I don’t,” replied Violet as she stomped out of the room.

Adrina watched her go. As she continued staring at the doorway, lost in thought, she noticed red hair peeking in, soon followed by brown eyes and the rest of Red’s face.

“Is it safe?” he asked.

“She’s gone,” Adrina answered. “What are you doing here?”

“I heard raised voices. And for the record, I was asking about you.” He stepped into the spotless room, walking over to a desk in the corner where Violet sometimes sat. “You know you don’t need her permission to do anything.”

“Well, sure, but…” She paused. “But what if she’s right, though? That this facility doesn’t exist, or that there’s nothing there? What if I do go, but I get everyone killed?”

“Never! I’d look after you, if anything. Anyway, that’s just good old overprotective, antagonistic Vi. I’m sure she’ll warm up to the idea. Most of the others are willing to try this out, especially Nero. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him so excited about anything before, unless you count him showing us that crazy room he found with his key. We’ll do a role call about who’s going, she’ll put up a fuss, then Cheng or Nero will note that it’ll be safer if everyone goes, she’ll sigh, and relent. You’ll see.”

Adrina cracked a smile. “That sounds like her.”

“You know it does.”

Adrina caught the look of utter confidence in his face and giggled.

“Well, it looks like my plan has succeeded,” said Red.

* * *

“We’re back!” called Aurus as he and Albus entered the living room, holding groceries and other supplies in their arms. “Has Giovani found that place yet?”

“Well, he better have – this will only last us a couple weeks, and we couldn’t find a vehicle.”

“We couldn’t find that tree right by the north entrance to the school either. It looks like something dug it up. But that’s not important.”

Nero poked his head in from the open door to the boys’ wing. “Two weeks?” he asked skeptically. “With Giovani’s eating habits? Anyway, he’s in the library. We don’t know if he’s found anything yet.”

“He has.” Aurus and Albus turned around, exposing Giovani, who was obviously trying to contain a great deal of excitement. “It’s about a hundred and thirty miles southeast of here.”

“That would be a little more than two weeks for the whole trip then,” said Nero, stepping into the common room.

“If we walk.” Violet entered from the girls’ side, Cheng close behind her. “Look, that’s a really long time to be gone, and a rather far ways to go. Is it really worth it?”

“I believe so,” replied Giovani. Red appeared in the girls’ doorway, wheeling Adrina along in front of him.

“But what if we get there, and there’s nothing?” Violet persisted.

“Then at least we have the journey to reminisce about. It’s not like we’ve got anything better to do.”

“The journey’s what I’m most worried about. It’s dangerous out there!”

“It would be less dangerous if you came with us,” Nero pointed out. “Besides, I think everyone else is pretty set on going.”

Violet’s eyes glanced between the others in the room. She sighed in defeat. “Fine! But it’s not my fault if some monster eats us all!”

Red bent down by Adrina’s ear. “Told you.”

“That settles it then,” said Nero, clapping his hands together. “Everyone, pack your bags. We leave at dawn.”

“Dawn?” exclaimed Cheng. “Who gets up at dawn?”

“Ten o’clock then.”

“Ten? Who gets up at ten?”