“Run! Run!”

The two soldiers sprinted over the rain-slick rubble, leaping through it with the sure-footedness of long practice over rough terrain. One was clutching his arm, the material of his uniform torn and ragged - the other was unhurt, but the whiteness of his face and the hollows of his eyes bespoke how terrified he was, on the brink of panic. Behind them the survivors of the pack were still coming - they could hear the sound of their claws raking over the concrete, their baying cries.

“Not much further -”

“I can’t - my arm - I can’t -”

The injured soldier staggered, and his white-faced companion just managed to catch him before he fell. “Come on!”

“No, I can’t!” He clutched at his friend. “Please! Don’t leave me here with those things!”

“We just need to get to the -”

There was the sound of gunshots in the distance: three, four, five. The yelping of the Earthborn cut off abruptly. A single yowl of protest cut the air… until a final shot silenced it entirely. The soldiers looked at each other, then fled, knowing it might only be a temporary reprieve.

Behind them, Athellus watched them go, checked no one was nearby, then stood up out of the rubble to check his handiwork. The Earthborn were scattered raggedly across the ground. He pushed at them with his foot, turning the bodies over. He had shot them squarely, save the last one: there was no time for interrogations. But the swirling pattern of painted stripes across their backs and heads, still recognisable, told him plenty.

There was sporadic gunfire in the distance, echoing weirdly off the surviving buildings. He could hear shouting even from here. Where was Dax?

“It’s happening all over the place,” Kaire said in his ear, and Athellus flinched - he hadn’t known she was so close. “I don’t think they can see very well in this weather. The Earthborn are using their scent to hunt.”

“I can’t be everywhere at once.” Athellus had already seen them on the way here - grey waterproofs over blue and grey uniforms, on bodies that were horribly still and silent. They were the ones he had been too slow to help. “And I can’t risk moving out in the open. I need you to -”

“I understand.” Kaire stepped past him.

He caught her arm above the elbow. “Wait. Stay away from the Evinthei or you’ll kill them all. Just the Earthborn, Kaire.”

She laughed, lightly. The whites of her eyes were luminous. “Relax. I’ve been doing this a long time, remember?” She tapped his face with the back of her hand. “There’s cleaner ways to get rid of insects than by crushing them.” Her voice hardened. “They like hunting? They like scent? I’ll give them all they can handle. That’ll teach them not to get ideas above their station.”

Athellus let her go, relieved. “Still, be careful.”

“Keep your head down,” she told him, drawing away. He caught a white blur moving from the corner of his eye, the brief slap-slap of bare feet on wet stone, and she was gone as swiftly as she had come.

Athellus shut his eyes and took a deep breath, letting it out very slowly. He took a step forward into the shadow of the rubble and allowed himself to slip into the patterns of light and shade. If Dax had seen him do it, he would have thought at once of the way Athellus had disappeared outside the derelict hospital. This was the talent his ban-reth had built up the most - not invisibility, he could be seen by anyone who looked hard enough and he could not hide from Kaire - but it was a step up from basic camouflage, enough for him to walk through the shadows without disturbing them. It was a talent, an edge, nothing more. Still, an edge was an edge, and it had kept him alive in difficult situations before now.

He ran through the rubble in the direction of the guard post, pausing now and then to duck down and get his bearings. There was loud sobbing coming from somewhere nearby; Athellus tried to shut it out and risked a look over the top of a large segment of crumbling wall. Nobody was in sight. An old truck had been smashed to bits long ago when the buildings had collapsed, and its rusty carcass was still trapped under the concrete nearby.

Athellus was about to move on when his sharp eye caught a shape behind the truck itself, just visible through the shattered windshield. A spiny and crested head, looking in the opposite direction. As he watched, the Earthborn crept forward, followed by at least a dozen others. They were hissing to each other in that speech of theirs. The one he had first spotted looked like some sort of leader. If he could knock that one over, it might frighten and disorientate the others it was with.

He let his gun slip into his hand. The Earthborn were still ‘talking’. He rested the barrel on the wall ahead of him and began lining up the shot… then saw the readout on the back. The magazine was empty, and he had no spare ammo.

Silently Athellus drew the weapon back, and clicked a switch on the side. The chamber full of bright blue liquid bubbled slightly and began to glow brighter. He lined up the shot again, sighted on the Earthborn’s chest, and fired.

A globule of bright blue gel hit the creature squarely in the throat and splashed across its skin. The creature reared back with a scream, starting to claw at the area, now a glowing blue patch. The others began to mill about in confusion; as their leader took off in a mad dash, blundering back and forth, still clawing at itself, they began to scatter.

Athellus watched them go, then stood up. The blue substance was a biomarker gel, mostly composed of bioluminescent bacteria, and used by the Evinthei to mark their positions by firing it at walls. However, when it hit living tissue, the bacteria in the gel began eating into the flesh, causing massive infection that fluoresced at the same time. If any Evinthei officer saw that Earthborn with the glowing patch on its throat, he or she would guess it was a pack leader and shoot it first. If he could mark as many Earthborn as possible while he hunted for Dax, it might help the Evinthei by making the enemy more visible in this weather.

If the situation is this bad, Dax might be dead already.

Athellus put that thought firmly aside, checking how much biomarker he had left. Enough… but if he got mobbed by Earthborn it wouldn’t take them down fast enough. He needed ammunition, and quickly too. Hopefully Kaire was having better luck.

* * *

Outside the barracks there were more bodies stretched out here and there - everything was in confusion with figures hurrying back and forth. As soon as he left the door, Dax was almost bowled over by two soldiers running as if for their lives. They knocked him hard against the brickwork, winding him. He watched them go, racing into the night - until a tall, spare figure stepped out in front of them. “Where the hell are you two going?”

Even through the noise - the constant hiss of the rain, the screams - and his own fear, Dax could recognise Captain Lessinger. The man’s uniform was torn and ripped and one hand was holding a white pad to a cut above his eye, but he was standing, and he looked furious. Lessinger’s free hand gripped the collar of one of the soldiers: Dax half expected him to lift the man off his feet like a rag doll. “I asked where you think you’re going!”

The soldier stuttered in terror. Lessinger shoved him back. “The team on the west side need another medic, theirs is swamped because he’s taking cases from all over. You’ve had first aid training - go and help him out. As for you -” He swung to the other man. “Get a portable transponder and call any team with working communications gear. Get them back here so we can build a perimeter, and call an airlift in for the wounded. If HQ want to send reinforcements in, tell them to forget it, there’s too many people here already. Once we’re centralised we can take them down.”

“Captain, they’re talking about something else out there, something that’s too big to be an Earthborn! And there’s another thing, something white, like -”

Lessinger pointed away from them. “Did that sound like a suggestion to you? I don’t care what anyone is saying! If you don’t get moving right now, this second and help out your mates out there who need you, I will string the pair of you up like puppets and make you dance a goddamn fandango! Do you understand me?

The two men took off as if the ground underneath them had suddenly turned red-hot. Lessinger lowered his hand. The cut over his eye was not large but it was bleeding profusely, and with the rain running down his face, almost the entire side of his head seemed awash with it. He turned as if in irritation and saw Dax standing against the wall. “And what are you waiting for?” he demanded. “You -”

Lessinger stopped, then slowly started walking toward him, his brow knotted. He was staring not at Dax, not right in the eye, but at a point slightly above that. And Dax realised his head was cold, that drops of water were beginning to soak through his hair, which was almost invisible in the gloom aside for the white blaze, standing out bright and clear.

He watched Lessinger’s eyes. He tracked from Dax’s hair, to the bodies on the ground, to the city around them, with all that the rain was concealing, all the chaos that had been wrought. And Lessinger said nothing. He simply dropped the bloodstained pad - it blew away in the wind, tumbling over and over, though the wet ground tried to claim it - reached down to his hip, and drew his gun.

 

 

 

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