Rachelle was a credit to her training; when shaken awake her hand was reaching for her weapon before her eyes were fully open. She drew her hair out of her eyes and gave Adree a questioning look. In answer Adree tapped her ear with two fingers, pointed towards the elevator shaft, then gestured upwards. Rachelle nodded and rolled upright.

Adree went on swift and silent feet onto the landing where Robbes was waiting, listening beside the rusty old elevator doors. As she approached he shook his head and pointed down below their feet. The noise was still coming from below them. Robbes tapped his ear and gave Adree a down-and-around gesture. She nodded back, and crouched beside the long metal case she had left beside her seat on the stairs as Robbes, pistol by his head, descended fast and quiet.

Under her fingertips the sniper rifle was smooth oiled pieces in the dark, quickly screwed and slotted together thanks to endless drills. Adree ran her hand across the ammo tags in the top of the case, but most of the slots were empty, stripped clear to reduce the weight. Finally she picked her hollowpoints - not usually her ammo of choice, but beggars couldn’t be choosers - and started loading the rifle.

The elevator shaft? What’s the point of that? The whole thing’s blocked off, has been for years. The old car’s crashed at the bottom. Once you’re in there’s nowhere to go.

It couldn’t be the lapidtalos, surely. She couldn’t get a clear reading on the mind of whatever was in there, but she could clearly pick out more than one - more likely a pack. And besides… the great relic of Nones wouldn’t come sneaking into the building and start wandering around. Would it?

Adree set her jaw as she finished loading her gun. She’d imagined… what? Maybe a noble voice over the radio? A call from outside to bring her out, one equal to another? Or maybe all this romantic bullshit — riddles and wonders — had gone to her head.

Ember damn those Earthborn. You couldn’t set foot in this city without them messing up even the best battle pl —

Clenk!

Adree stopped dead and listened. The scrabbling had stopped. Maybe a piece of debris had fallen down the shaft and spooked them.

Silence.

Silence.

Clenk! More tentative this time. Then again: clenk! Clenk clenk! Clenk! Clenk!

The only way Adree could describe it later was… the same noise a can made when you crumpled it up. But in that moment all she cared about was getting in a position to find out what the hell was making it.

Rachelle Telcane came out of their little guard post, armed with a pistol in one hand and a biothrower in the other. Only the very tip of the weapon glowed that faint, distinctive blue to alert other Evinthei to the fact a deadly weapon full of luminous, necrotising bacteria was about to be deployed nearby. The light of it picked out Rachelle’s eyes, which disquieted Adree: she had seen that expression before, on Arawn Lessinger’s face. The commander made a brief chopping motion against her chest, a don’t-sweat-it signal. Rachelle visibly swallowed, and nodded again.

Heston Robbes appeared at the bottom of the stairs, wide-eyed, and shook his head in bemusement as that peculiar noise continued, getting steadily louder. Adree listened a moment more, then decisively pointed upstairs: Rachelle to take point, then herself and Robbes as rearguard. She would have preferred to take point, but a biothrower was not a weapon you wanted behind you. Rachelle went up well, checking her corners before she moved, the light giving Adree a little guidance as to her position.

Clenk-clenk-clenk-clenk-clenk. The noise was a rapid tattoo by the time they got up onto the next floor, then the next, and the next. Finally Adree called a halt near the elevator doors on this level, which had long jammed open against fallen rubble, opening into opaque darkness. And up from that darkness came the noise, the noise over and over again.

Adree’s fingers tightened on her rifle. Her tongue flicked over her lips, once, then she beckoned Rachelle forward beside her. The two women crouched by the elevator doors, and Adree turned to give Rachelle her orders: she pointed at her eyes, then down into the elevator shaft, then at the biothrower and held up three fingers. Rachelle nodded in agreement. Adree glanced behind her: Robbes was covering their back. She held up her hand flat and began tucking in her fingers - five, four, three, two…

On ‘one’, Rachelle swung the biothrower down into the elevator shaft and depressed the trigger.

Phosphorescent blue liquid sprayed out of it, lighting up the elevator shaft like a Christmas tree. For three seconds it sprayed down, and Adree looked down in the light to see… to see…

… moving shadows that were much closer than she had expected. Moving shadows now screaming as the biomarker gel splashed across them, eating into them. Shadows that were clinging to the interior of the elevator shaft itself, somehow attached to the metal, now leaping up with a clenk-clenk-clenk and pouncing toward her —

Adree fired. In the enclosed space the shot was deafening, but it found its mark — one shadow fell into the darkness of the shaft, taking another two with it, but there were more coming and there was no time to reload.

The creature that lunged at the edge of the elevator doors, clinging to the edge of the floor, was as big as Adree and broad in the chest and arms. The biomarker gel clinging to the side of its face — blinding it, even as it sneezed and shook at its head — outlined a short but elegant reptilian snout mottled with small scales, spreading out at the back of its head to small tough ridges that flattened to protect its ears and both sides of its neck. The creature’s body was dressed in tight, neat wrappings: no sleeves or seams, just wrappings around the body and legs. Its skin was mottled with dark patches that had been expanded cosmetically into beautiful patterns at the edges. And there was a smell around it, too, a smell of old musk, old water, old rust.

Adree registered all of it and none of it, because like all Evinthei, she was trained to react instantly to the sight. The butt of her sniper rifle slammed into the creature’s throat, just below the patch of blueness that would eat into its body and drive it mad long before it died. Already off balance, the creature was knocked back into the elevator shaft, its sharp high scream descending quickly, but she could see movement swarming below.

“Back off! Back off!” Adree yelled to her team, already frantically reloading. “Robbes, get back! We’ve got Taugen in the building!”

 

 

 

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