CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

This post contains the eighteenth chapter of my as-of-yet untitled sci-fi novel. I present this first draft now, in a raw, unedited format (be kind, hopefully-soon-to-be-constant reader). Feedback is encouraged! You can find the rest of the published chapters here.

Nyx explodes up from the table, sending her heavy chair clattering to the floor with a sharp crack. She is across the room and through the open doorway before I can get out of my seat, her retinue of armor-clad Sisters of Winter following hard on her heels. Snow, Hawk, and I scramble to our feet and rush after them. As we struggle to catch up to the fast-moving knot of female warriors, the sounds of battle echo from beyond the open doorway at the end of the long, black-tiled hallway.

            We burst out of the darkened hallway and onto the white stone steps of the central domed building. Nyx is already barking orders at a group of grim-faced Sisters of Winter that, from their slightly more ornate suits of armor, appear to be leaders of some kind. The right pauldron of each unit leaders’ armor has been painted a single bold color – blood red, dark blue, gold, and black, respectively. The colors match thin strips of color painted on the thigh plates of the troops they lead, which must be how these Valkyries distinguish between units in the field. Nyx’s armor is the only suit without a colored shoulder or unit designation line on the thigh.

            I look across the brick plaza towards the massive circular cave mouth that leads back to the surface. The scene unfolding in the mouth of the entrance nearly freezes me in my tracks. Halfway up the massive stone staircase, a fierce battle is raging between scores of Nyx’s Sisters and a huge invading force of Ghosts and Clockers. The enemy army is massive – they outnumber Helios’s defenders nearly two-to-one. Nyx’s all-female force fights desperately to hold their ground, but the enemy’s suicidal aggression and greater numbers has created a bulge near the center of the defensive line as the Sisters reel under the ferocity of the combined force. From the plaza below the stairway, small units of Sisters wielding bows pour barrage after barrage of flaming arrows into the back ranks of the invading warband with desperate abandon. As I watch, a single Clocker leaps from the stairway above and lands in the midst of a small clump of archers, killing one Sister instantly. The surviving archers scramble backwards, desperate to escape a gruesome death from the beast’s razor-sharp claws and gnashing metal teeth. The monster eviscerates two more of the fleeing Sisters before it’s finally brought down by two young warriors, each wielding a pair razor-sharp short swords. Above, Ghosts and Sisters alike tumble over the edges of the tall staircase, plummeting to their deaths as the battle on the stairway rages on. Inhuman screams and the ring of steel against steel fills the air like a mournful song.

            Nyx wheels to face my companions and I as we approach. “We have to stop them at the stairway,” She cries over the clatter and din of the nearby battle. “If they break our lines, Helios will fall. All will be lost.” Her green eyes are bottomless pools of pain and determination as she watches the tide of battle turning against her armor-clad warriors. “Will you stand with us, Lost Boys? Will you fight for Helios?”

            “Shit, I’d fight for a sandwich if it means I get to kill Ghosts,” Hawk sneers as he draws his dagger from his belt. “What the hell are we waiting for?”

            “Couldn’t have said it better myself,” I say with more confidence than I’m actually feeling. “But, if we’re going to fight, we’re going to need weapons.”

            “Follow me,” Nyx replies as she stomps down the steps towards the rapidly assembling group of reinforcements in the plaza. We follow as she strides towards the fountain at the center of the plaza where a small group of Sisters help each other into gleaming suits of bone-white armor. Once armored, they arm themselves with swords, spears, and bows from a hastily erected weapon rack that stands near the fountain at the center of the plaza. Small units of Nyx’s warriors, led by stony-eyed unit commanders with colored pauldrons, rush past us and towards the bulge in the defensive line as we reach the makeshift armory. A squat Sister with a shaved head and a black eye patch over her scarred right eye socket greets Nyx with a curt nod as we approach. She hands Nyx a pair of ornate short swords, each golden blade etched with intricate symbols I don’t recognize, and then turns to regard my companions and I with a grimace.

            “You know how to handle a chopper, little boys?” The squat armorer asks with an accent that deforms chopper into something closer to shoppa.

            “We can handle ourselves,” Snow snaps as he eyes the rack of weapons behind the glowering weapon master.

            “Enough,” Nyx says coolly. “We’re all on the same side, today. Festa, give them what they need.” Festa nods curtly and hands each of us a blade from the rapidly emptying rack. Unlike the weapons we had used at The Falls, these weapons appear newly forged, their edges freshly sharpened and devoid of nicks or scratches from previous use. I grasp the hilt of the offered weapon and I’m immediately struck by how perfectly balanced the blade feels in my hand. Somewhere, in the back of my skull, I feel a familiar tingle as I tighten my grip around the weapon’s leather-wrapped hilt.

            “How about a suit of that badass armor?” Hawk says with a fatalistic chuckle as Festa hands him a blade that appears identical to the one in my hand. “Or are you all out of men’s sizes?” A bloodcurdling shriek of shock and pain punches through the sound of the battle before Festa can respond. A pair of Clockers leap from the stairway, landing on the leader of a group of Sisters rushing towards the base of the stairs, sending their ranks into terrified disarray.

            “We’re running out of time,” Nyx says, each clipped syllable as hard as the white carapace wrapped around her lithe body. “Follow me.”

            “Figures,” Hawk snorts. Nyx ignores him and charges towards the Clocker duo currently cutting the squad of fleeing Sisters to shreds as they scatter in the wake of their squad leader’s death. We charge after her, silently steeling ourselves for the spasm of violence to come.

            A fresh tingle shudders down my spine as I charge after the raven-haired commander of the Sisters of Winter. Is Ghoul trying to help me again, or is my mind playing tricks on me as my guts turn to water at the prospect of facing these monsters again? Nyx lets loose a fearsome battle cry and smashes into the nearest Clocker with an armored white shoulder, sending the monstrosity flying backwards with flailing limbs. Two Sisters pin the beast to the ground with wicked-looking spears before removing its head with savage swings of their choppers. A thick column of black blood erupts from stump of the creature’s thick neck in a single sickening spurt as its malformed head rolls lazily away like a lightly kicked ball.

Nyx wheels on the second Clocker and deftly sidesteps the wild slash of its huge metal claws. Nyx brings both of her golden blades down in a graceful arc, severing the creature’s outstretched arms with a single slash. The monster reels backwards, shrieking in pain, and Nyx severs the thing’s head with an effortless horizonal swipe. Black blood spatters her armor like foul rain as she charges forward, rallying the fleeing squad of Sisters as she pushes towards the front line on the stairway ahead.

            “Hey, save a couple for me,” Hawk sneers as we struggle to keep up. We’re only yards away from the wide stone steps at the base of the grand stairway when another Clocker crashes to the ground between Nyx and my companions. The familiar shiver explodes down my spine with renewed intensity. I feel my body dart out of the way of the unanticipated attack. My stomach twists as I realize that, had I taken one more step forward, this snarling biomechanical killing machine would have landed on my back, killing me instantly.

            “Thanks Ghoul,” I mutter as I spring back to my feet, “that’s another one I owe ya.” I clear my mind and allow the strange tingling sensation to take control as the Clocker opens its jaws wide to emit a hellish scream as it stalks towards me. Red lights sweep across my face, transforming the plaza around me into a nightmare of blood and shadow.

The sensation – the loss of control – is different this time. Time doesn’t slow down. Ghoul’s voice doesn’t override the thoughts in my head. Still, my body feels strange. The sensation feels like my limbs are made of tightly wrapped bundles of humming wires. A tsunami of electrical current lances through my veins and crackles through my aching muscles. I feel like the energy will tear me apart and swallow me whole if I try and resist its manic pull.

The pain in my shoulder evaporates.

My vison sharpens to an agonizing, razor sharp clarity.

I am a weapon. A tool. A Dream Slicer.  

            The Clocker lunges towards me, clicking and gurgling as it advances. I feel myself pivot effortlessly away from its first, clumsy attack. My body rides the crest of the humming wave of energy as it crackles down my spine. I surrender to the sensation and spin towards my attacker. I drag the killing edge of my blade across the monster’s corpse flesh back, opening a bubbling black gash from the creature’s pale shoulder blade to the base of its spine. The Clocker shrieks in pain and stumbles forward, sharp claws scrambling for purchase. It slips in the noxious puddle forming beneath its feet as the wound gushes filthy black blood onto the red bricks of the plaza.

I am so overwhelmed by the dizzying rush of energy pulsing through my body that I barely notice Hawk dash past me, screaming at the top of his lungs. He buries his sword in the center of the wounded Clocker’s metallic face with a resounding clang. The red lights in the center of the monster’s face shatter and spark before falling dark. Black blood erupts from the fatal wound in arcing ribbons. The creature crumples to the ground with a sickening thump. Hawk wrenches his blade free and charges after Nyx, grinning manically through a mask of black blood as he goes. Snow and I follow at a full run, careful not to slip in the noxious dark pool spreading around the twitching Clocker like a black halo.

Nyx and her squad of warriors smash into the front rank of invaders like an asteroid crashing to earth. I watch in awe as the dark-haired girl slashes and spins like a ballerina dancing with death. Clockers and Ghosts surge towards her – this fierce and beautiful champion of Helios – and are cut down in droves by the golden blur of her blades as she flows around them like smoke through trees. The stairs beneath her feet are slick with blood and stacked with corpses as, one by one, her enemies wither under the furious assault.

The Sisters on the stairs fight with renewed ferocity, their spirits bolstered by the presence of their deadly commander. My jaw clenches painfully as intense bursts of energy pulse through my body in steadily increasing waves. The sensation surges through me, pulling me towards the chaotic orgy of violence as if the battle is generating an irresistible dark magnetism.

I reach Nyx’s side and drive my blade into the gut of the nearest Ghost. Blood gushes from the wound as I yank my blade out of his stomach. The invader doesn’t make a sound as he crumples to the ground in a gore-spattered heap. My body is a distant, alien thing that’s no longer under my control. I’m in the passenger seat as some unseen pilot mans the controls. I’m along for the ride, watching with a mix of awe and terror as the sword in my blood-smeared hand cuts a gruesome swath through Ghost and Clocker alike without mercy or quarter. The air is filled with black smoke and the copper-tinged smell of blood and burnt flesh as waves of flaming arrows continue to fall on the faltering rear ranks of the invading army. I stare in detached awe as a hulking Ghost, the white fur of his tunic blazing like a torch, continues to press the attack as flames spread over his body from the burning arrow shaft buried in his shoulder. Rayna plants a savage kick in the middle of his chest and he tumbles backwards off the stairs, trailing an orange streak of flame as he plummets to the floor below like a falling star.

Nyx seizes the initiative and presses the attack forward, driving the invaders backwards as their lines falter and threaten to break under our combined onslaught. More Sisters of Winter join the fight every minute as the tide of battle begins to turn in our favor.

“Drive them back,” Nyx cries as she raises a blood-drenched golden blade over her head defiantly. “For Helios!”

“For Helios,” the Sisters echo in ragged unison as they surge forward with renewed intensity. Out of the corner of my eye I see Snow dispatch a pair of spear-wielding Ghosts with practiced ease. My pale companion moves and strikes with dispassionate grace, his face a tranquil mask of emotionless calm as enemies lunge towards him in waves. A Clocker leaps towards Snow from the stairs above with an ear-splitting scream. Snow’s blade flashes upwards in a lethal arc, catching the creature in midair and slicing it in half at the waist. The ragged halves of the dead monster fall to the ground behind Snow, splattering a nearby squad of Sisters with black liquid.

  All at once, the invaders begin to disengage. They flee up the stairs and towards the surface as if an unheard voice has sounded the retreat. Whoops and cheers erupt from the bloody and battered Sister of Winter as Clockers and Ghosts break contact and run up the stone steps en masse. The archers on the plaza below continue to fire, their arrows falling among the fleeing fighters like lethal rain. Nyx raises a clenched fist in the air, signaling her forces to hold their positions and abandon pursuit of the routed enemy force. I watch as a final volley of arrows sail towards a small group of enemy stragglers attempting to escape into the mouth of the tunnel at the top of the stairway. The arrows miss their marks and clatter harmlessly onto the wide stone steps at the mouth of the circular cavern entrance. The last of the enemy army slips into the darkness of the passage without so much as a look back at the carnage they leave in their wake.

I breathe a ragged sigh of relief as the strange tingling sensation drains from my body with a parting shudder. My sword suddenly feels impossibly heavy in my hand and my injured shoulder pulses painfully with each hammering beat of my heart. For a moment, an eerie silence hangs over the battlefield as the survivors breathe a collective sigh of relief. Hawk breaks the spell with a triumphant whoop and Helios erupts into a chorus of victorious cheers. I turn to survey the scene below as I add my own voice to the explosion of cheers swelling around me.

Dead bodies litter the stairs. Grotesque Clocker corpses lay in bloody heaps, their distorted limbs intertwined with Clockers and Sisters alike. The stone steps are slick with red and black blood. A pall of smoke hangs in the air as the smoldering corpses of dead invaders continue to burn where they fell. Nyx’s once pristine while armor is a riot crimson and black splatters, but she looks unharmed. She kneels next to Rayna as she wraps a thick bandage around a wicked-looking gash in the dark-skinned Sisters’ thigh. Snow and Hawk are several steps below Nyx and Rayna, closer to the plaza floor. They carry a wounded Sister between them, her armored arms draped over either boys’ shoulder as they move slowly towards the plaza below. I breathe a silent sigh of relief at the sight of my friends, alive and unharmed against all odds. Fira rushes towards them, carrying a canvas satchel over her shoulder that’s emblazoned with a large red cross. Her thin, unarmored form looks strangely out of place among the crowd of armored Sisters milling about on the red brick expanse of the plaza. My four bunkmates scamper after her, each carrying a bag identical to the one slung over the red-haired girls’ shoulder. Fira yells something over her shoulder and my terrified-looking friends scatter into the plaza in opposite directions, rushing towards the prone forms of the wounded Sisters littering the plaza floor. A surge of pride warms my chest as I watch these four misfits– my brothers – rush to render aid to our newfound allies. Nyx catches my eye and favors me with a single, solemn nod. I return the gesture with an exhausted smile as Fira kneels to examine Rayna’s wounds.

As I make my way down the wide stairway, I’m suddenly aware of a strange sound bubbling up from beneath the mummer of activity and conversation on the plaza below. The sound is a low mechanical hum interspersed with vaguely familiar clicks. I stop moving and close my eyes, straining to isolate the strange sound from the noise of the plaza below.

The sound is getting louder, the clicks closer together.

Panic hits me like a bucket of ice water to the face. My eyes snap open and I wheel around frantically, my wide eyes searching the body-strewn stairs for the source of the alien sound. The sound is everywhere. It’s coming from all around me…and it’s getting steadily louder.

“Crash,” Nyx says, getting to her feet with a concerned expression clouding her grime-smeared face. “What is it? What’s wrong?”

The sound swells louder, the clicks even closer together. The color drains from Nyx’s face as she hears the sound for the first time. She spins around, searching for the origin of the strangely threatening noise. A hush falls over Helios as the exhausted warriors on the brick plaza below notice the strange sonic intruder for the first time. I scan the stairs frantically, desperate to locate the source of the sound. The sound gets louder. I can feel the stone vibrating under my feet in time with the thrumming drone filling the air in every direction.  

The vibrations get worse and, for a moment, I afraid the stairs will crumble under my feet like a sandcastle devoured by high tide. I fight the urge to dash towards the plaza floor below, gritting my teeth against the deafening sound assaulting my eardrums. I take a step backwards and my boot brushes against the corpse of a dead Clocker. The brief contact sends an intense vibration shooting up my leg like a bolt of lightning.

The sound is coming from the bodies!

The realization hammers a spike of terror into my chest. I kick the nearest Clocker corpse as hard as I can, sending it tumbling over the edge of the stairway into the darkness below. I don’t know what this new threat means, but the sinking feeling in my gut tells me that we need to get as far away as we can from these grotesque humming corpses – and we have to do it now.

I run down the stairs towards Nyx and the others, opening my mouth to shout a warning, but before I can say a word, a deafening chorus of explosions rock the stairway as the bodies began to detonate all around us. The force of the blast knocks me off my feet as one of the bodies explodes behind me in a burst of fire and shredded white flesh. It feels like I’ve been swatted off the stairs by an enormous invisible hand. I fly through the air like a discarded rag doll and land on the plaza floor below. My forehead slams into the brick floor of the plaza with a wet crack.

Pain explodes through my skull. My world dissolves into an abstract collage of blurry images and muffled sounds. I fight the urge to pass out as the blackness creeping in at the edges of my vison threatens to pull me under.

My friends…I have to make sure my friends are alive.

My limbs feel like they’re made of lead. I struggle against my impossibly heavy body, desperate to find my feet and find my friends, but my limbs refuse to comply. I raise my slowly and gaze up the stone stairway. A sheen of blood covers my face, turning my vision red. From this angle, the stairs take on an otherworldly, cyclopean aspect. They stretch upwards and away, seeming to go on forever. Halfway up the staircase, in the spot we had been celebrating our victory only moments before, a massive semicircular section of the structure has disappeared. It looks like some massive set of jaws has taken a savage bite out of the huge stone structure, leaving only a thin path to connect Helios to the world above.

Screams and groans of agony fill the air around me. My heart sinks as my mind fills with images of my friends, dead and dying on the red bricks of the plaza behind me. I stifle a sob and try to push myself up a second time. My arms refuse to comply. I sink back to the ground and rest my chin on the broken bricks beneath my head.

On the stairway above, a lone figure catches my eye as it moves slowly down the stone steps towards me. Something about the way the shadow moves is familiar. Could it be another survivor? One of my friends? I squint through the blood and the blur, trying to make sense of the shape descending the stairs.

Footsteps. Footsteps on stone as the figure strolls casually down the steps into view. A broad smile stretches across the dark skin of the figure’s face as he kneels down next to me.

“Sorry about the mess,” Dex says, the wide smile never leaving his face. “But the witch clan has something I need.” He pats me on the shoulder with odious mock-camaraderie that makes my skin crawl and the stands up with a bored sigh. “See you around, Crash.” The last thing I see before blacking out is his heavy combat boot rushing towards my face.

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