An impact shook the city of Brechwell, dull and low, reverberating through the ground and up to the rooftops. In the wake of it, windows and doors continued to rattle and bang in their frames, adding an eerie note to the tail end of it.
The entire city seemed to go still. Birds taking shelter from the rain and the handful of soldiers on the street were all frozen. Our group and the rainwater were the only things moving in a still tableau.
Then the warning bells started tolling, muffled, all through the city, the birds took off from roosts, and soldiers ran. Where each of the towers had lone spotlights, additional lights were lit, the beams becoming diffuse, aimed at the city streets. Stretches of light and dark.
State of emergency.
A second impact cut into the bass tolling of the bells. As it rippled across a segment of Brechwell, the bells were jarred midway through their motions. Some sounded early, others were delayed.
I gripped Lillian’s wrist harder as the rooftop shook with the strike.
The Brechwell Beast roared, and the sound carried. It was a lowing noise, and I imagined I imagined it sounded frustrated. An actual observation, gleaned from small details and intuition, or just what I wanted to think?
Wish they hadn’t warned people, but I guess they had to. Someone in charge probably promised citizens there would be notice, to pacify them.
Down a side street, without a man or guard touching it, a portcullis gate slammed down, the blunted metal teeth of it striking the stone of the road. The lights from the towers shifted, leaving that street dark, illuminating the path that remained.
I’d imagined this part.
Release the local weapon, send it out into the streets, and use the gates to control its movements.
I couldn’t stop smiling.
Helen, ahead of us, raised a hand, then gestured twice.
“Screams,” Catcher said, echoing the same sentiment. “Your Ghosts.”
Here we were.
I’d never had the impression the Ghosts were particularly intelligent. They could talk, recite from script, and they had residual behaviors and movement from the manner of their manufacture. I wondered if the scenario of the Brechwell Beast had even come up, if the Firebrands had taken the time to explain to their inaudible children just what to expect and what to do if the weapon was let loose from its dwelling.
I heard the Beast roar, and this time it was moving.
They’d opened the gate it had been banging against.
“Cross!” Gordon shouted, pointing. It was a set of rooftops above a gate that still yawned open.
“If it passes beneath us-” Petey had to raise her voice to be heard over the din.
“Cross!” Gordon called out.
Helen ran across, hunched over, one hand extended straight toward the ground, ready to drop and hug the peaked roof at a moment’s notice. Gordon and Mary were next, followed by Lillian and me.
Dog, Catcher and the Engineer had gone ahead, and Dog had been kind enough to place his claws against sections further down the roof. I could see patches where he’d leaped and where he’d landed, and shingles had been torn or scraped away by the violence and the weight of each of his movements.
Petey was lagging behind. I made sure to keep an eye on her. By all rights, Helen should have gone with her, but Petey and Helen were diametric opposites, Helen was our scout, capable of hearing the Ghosts, and Petey was far from being fast enough to help with scouting.
We could have and should have reshuffled the group, perhaps sending Mary forward with Helen, but it was too late to decide on that now, and we were almost there. So long as Petey didn’t slip and slide off to one side and over the brink, we were fine.
Dog and Catcher stopped, and Catcher extended an arm, signaling. Catcher remembered the signals for alert, and for direction. Easy to make out in the gloom, as he was a dark silhouette against the glare of a tower’s lights.
I squeezed Lillian’s wrist, tugging her a bit as I willed her to move faster.
We were so close.
Over one house, past another, past an ‘x’ shaped intersection of rooftops and buildings, a park to one side and roads to another, and we could see what Catcher was indicating.
A trio of Ghosts and a quartet of others in civilian garb were all gathered, talking. Some had rifles. Infiltrators.
One Ghost was staring up at us.
I could feel the tramp of the Brechwell Beast’s feet, see the shift of the lighting as some lights moved to follow it. It was loud, and the sound went beyond the heavy footfalls. A grinding sound, like something heavy rolling over crushed stones.
The civilians were at a door, working to open it.
“Catcher!” I shouted, and my voice was nearly drowned out.
He said something, but I couldn’t make out the individual sounds. He was reaching into his coat, withdrawing something that was about the same size and shape as a wine bottle, but black with fluid inside.
He tossed it out over the edge of the roof. Ghosts scattered, backing up, while the other enemies in civilian clothing were oblivious.
The bottle struck hard ground, there was a flare of orange in the center, and then thick smoke filled the area.
He said something else that I couldn’t make out.
Each tromp of the Beast’s feet made my teeth clack together. He was one street over, rounding the corner behind us, turning, approaching the corner that turned onto this street.
Helen dropped, hugging the roof’s peak.
I tugged Lillian’s arm, hauling her down. I dug fingers beneath thick, wet, freezing shingles for a grip. Others were doing the same.
The superweapon of Brechwell Academy lunged ’round the corner, not slowing, heedless of potential obstacles in its way.
Had someone taken a toad, a mammoth, a bull and a rhino and kept the most brutish features of each, they would have been in the right ballpark for the Brechwell Beast. It was wide, muscular, and built to plow forward, with no sign that it was built to stop. Its chest was triangular and deep enough to scrape the ground, even as powerful limbs carried it forward. Tusks extending from the corner of its mouth scraped against the road and the sides of buildings, the curve of them keeping them from catching on anything, and horns extended around the top, doing much the same. At the shoulder -the shoulders and upper parts of its forelimbs were perhaps its largest feature, I noted- it stood three and a half stories tall.
It was armored, something grown rather than hewn from metal, the plates white-gray in color, edges sharpened, layered over one another. The plates at the chest scraped the ground like the horns and tusks did, and the plates across its back gave it a serrated appearance. What I could see between and beneath armor plates suggested that the Beast had no lack of protection – it alternated from layers of heavy scale that was probably armor unto itself and skin that looked like it was nothing but callus and scar tissue.
The street rumbled, windows threatening to rattle out of panes as the Beast made its approach, and I found the vibration of its movement threatening to tear my fingers from the shingles.
I knew I wasn’t going to be able to hang on before it was halfway down the street to us.
It reached the ‘u’ bend in the road, with us at the middle of the bend. Its full weight slammed against the building faces, and momentum carried the shock of the impact straight through to us.
I wasn’t even sure what happened. In one moment, I was on the rooftop. Then it was like I’d been hit across face, neck, chest and stomach with a physical blow. In the next, I wasn’t touching anything solid.
A full second passed before my right shoulder scraped roof. My right foot and ass touched the roof next, and I had my bearings. A moment later, my backpack caught on the roof, and I started spiraling out, head going more down, feet more up.
I was halfway down the roof, sliding down faster than I could’ve run, and there was only an abyss below me, darker than the sky above.
My arms went out for traction, heels of my hand scraping against the rough texture of the shingles, and as I started to correct the spin, I brought one leg out, my pants leg and the flesh nearest the bone of my shin tearing on contact with the roof.
Belly down, more points of contact. I was hugging the roof, trying not to do anything that would make me spin and keep the momentum going through another venue. Three quarters of the way down.
In the engulfing darkness below, I could see a vague shape in gray, lit indirectly by the fire around a distant burning building, bounced off a cloud and down into the shadows beneath me.
A tree, but one too distant to reach with a timely leap, let alone a skid and fall.
The flare of hope died, but in its place I managed rage and fury.
I will not die here!
‘Oh, I knew Sy would do himself in eventually.’
I will not let them make remarks about how I was hoist by my own petard!
I shifted my weight. Seconds away from going over the edge, I raised both feet and stuck one arm out, no longer trying to slow my descent. I’d slowed, but it would never be enough, even if the roof was dry, if I wasn’t wearing a damn raincoat.
There was no light here, nothing to hint or illuminate my situation as I reached the end. I reached into darkness, slamming my feet down at an angle.
My feet found the gutter, wedging into the space. My tired, cold fingers found the edge of it, too. Momentum carried me down and forward, and my shoes popped out of the gutter, kicking shingle on the way up and out. A flap caught the meager light as it flew through the air, joined by one of my shoes.
I grit my teeth, bracing myself, as my lower body swung down, all of my weight jerking hard my fingers hard against the edge of the gutter, a wooden trough nailed to the eaves. I heard wood and metal cry out in their individual ways, threatening to pull free of where it had been secured to the wall.
My other hand went up, punching skyward in an effort to reach high enough, and found a grip.
Panting, hurting in a dozen places, I stayed right where I was, and found enough breath to whistle.
I could feel the Brechwell Beast continuing on its way, rounding a corner, then passing somewhere to my right. Each movement jarred me, and made the water that sat at the bottom of the gutter splash out, spattering me.
Catcher appeared in my view, mancatcher in one hand, touching the roof, the other extended out for balance, feet spread wide. He eased his way down to me.
“You could have lost the pack,” he said. “Shrug your shoulders, let it fall. That has to be a solid stone of weight weighing you down.”
“Heavier. It’s all books.”
“I’m okay,” I said. “If it really came down to it, I’d let him fall.”
“It. The bag. Let me up, will you?”
“Hm. Take this,” he said, “and don’t haul me down over the edge.”
He extended his poke, the spiked mancatcher end, and I shifted my grip to one arm, the entire arm and hand trembling as I reached up and through the closed metal ring to grip the pole just beyond.
I had to passively let him haul me up and over, because planting a foot on the edge and pulling myself up threatened to pull him down at the same time. Once I was high enough, I found a foothold in the gutter. A moment later I had one hand and both feet on the roof.
“Yes. I had to save Lillian before I saved you. I got her before she fell as far as you did, and she fell the other way. Dog got Petey.”
“Good,” I said. “Thank you.”
He gave me a simple nod.
I kept one hand on the mancatcher as we made our way to the peak.
The bells continued to toll as we rejoined the others. I reached out with my less-sore left hand and took Lillian’s, noting how her hair was sticking up on one side. She had a bit of a scrape too, and it looked like her ear was bleeding.
I looked down at the street where Catcher had created the cloud of smoke. It didn’t look like they’d gotten the door open. There was carnage, a body severed in half, no doubt sandwiched between wall and a sweeping tusk, and the lower body wasn’t visible or distinguishable. There were meaty bits amid the streak of flesh and blood, too ruined for me to tell what it was supposed to be.
“Next time,” Gordon said, “We position better.”
I nodded, then I smiled, “It has to have reached them by now.”
“Good to walk?” he asked, glancing at one of my legs.
We made our way in the direction we’d estimated Fray’s meeting spot to be. As we walked, I pulled my raincoat off, freeing one arm from sleeve and strap of backpack before letting go of Lillian’s hand and doing the same with the other. I let the raincoat fall to the roof before pulling the pack on again.
There was a crash a few streets over. A plume of dust or smoke rose from the impact site.
“Going ahead,” Catcher said, as he increased his pace. “Don’t fall again.”
The streets below us were getting wider, and I realized we were approaching the city center. There were a few more patches of gore where the Beast had torn past bystanders, but less than I might have liked.
We crossed a bridge and another section of rooftops, and reached the base of another tower, overlooking a plaza. It was an open area like we’d seen in the Academy, broken up by patterns in how the road was drawn out, with gardens in the spaces between the individual footpaths and a fountain in the center, set low to the ground. The Beast’s tusk had already torn through two opposing walls of the fountain, and a foot might have crushed another. Destroyed wagons and stalls littered the area already.
There was a building that might have been a town hall, a hospital, and another set of larger buildings I couldn’t label. The Beast was here, with freedom to move as it pleased. The white of the thing’s tusks was stained with mud, debris and gore. Its eyes were dark compared to the mask it had been fitted with.
Objectively, it was beautiful. Now that it wasn’t charging right for me, I could see the patterns on the armor, a mingling of old damage that had been left alone rather than repaired, and decorative etchings. Rainwater ran down the armor, pausing and helping catch the light amid the etchings. It looked like the lines of a maze.
Rifles fired from windows, and I suspected they might have been exorcists. The Beast was too far away, and the rifles, as powerful as they were, were far too little to stop the Beast, even if they got past the armor.
But the noise and the patter of bullets against armor did get the creature’s attention. It turned, focused on the source, and then charged from across the plaza.
I imagined the people inside the building were doing much what we were. Though we weren’t the target, we scrambled to put distance between ourselves and the impact site.
The Beast’s tusks retracted. Horns didn’t, but it lowered its head so the points of the horns were aimed almost straight down. It didn’t have a neck, only muscle and shoulder, and thus served as a massive battering ram, nearly as tall and far stronger than the building it assaulted.
We had a fair distance, but I still lowered myself, pulling off the pack, and braced for impact.
The crack of it made my thoughts skip, and the impact resounded, distorting the regular rhythm of bells. My vision jolted, and the fact that people manning nearby lights at the towers were jarred as well made the entire scene seem to wobble. The stone could have taken cannon fire and withstood it. The Beast didn’t care. It slammed through a foot of stone blocks with as much ease as Dog might a wooden door, plunging head and shoulders into the building.
Forelimbs reached up, scrabbling for purchase, and its shoulders heaved upwards against yet-unbroken stone, splitting it and sending it sliding down either side of the Beast’s back. The feet were reaching up to the first floor, straining to reach the second, and tore the floors down and away instead.
Huffing, puffing, the superweapon bucked, horns spearing up, striking at the floor above and the exterior wall, bringing more debris down.
I doubted anyone inside had survived that. Tough luck to anyone who lived upstairs or downstairs from that particular group.
It tried to retreat out, and its horns snagged on the stone masonry. It was a hair away from breaking the stone, but it didn’t haul itself free. Instead, the Beast remained where it was, huffing, puffing. Then it yawned, with no air entering or leaving its mouth.
“Cover your nose and mouth!” Lillian shrieked. Then, in her haste to follow through with her own action, she got out another incomplete phrase, “Eyes!”
I allowed myself a peek as I tucked nose and mouth into the crook of my elbow, lowering myself.
The Beast was letting a dark fog creep out of its mouth, filling the cavity of the ruined building in front of it.
The fog wasn’t reaching us.
I started to lower my arm. Lillian reached over and jerked it back up into place.
Something flickered. Like tentacles snaking through the dark fog, fire reached out. I brought my other arm up to protect my eyes as the fire expanded to find other pockets that would ignite, then others, swelling-
Our position on the far side of the roof, with the roof’s peak between us and the Beast prevented the worst of the detonation from reaching us. Everything else was silenced by the crack, even Beast and warning bells, and then, as if all of the sound had been caught up and thrown our way, it rushed at us, a violent wind and torrent of noise. I could hear glass breaking.
“Don’t breathe!” Lillian called out, voice muffled. It sounded like her voice was strained, as if she was digging for the last scraps of air in her lungs to give the order.
I remained where I was, face buried in the crooks of my elbows, hunched over the peak of the roof.
I felt my thoughts start to waver, my vision going dark at the edges, as my lungs burned of a need for more oxygen. The bells were resuming, and the deep thuds of the Beast’s footsteps shook the building and vibrated in the core of me, straining my already tenuous control over my struggling lungs and throat.
But when a doctor-in-training said not to breathe, one listened. When they ran, one ran. When they said ‘oh shit’, one ran and held their breath at the same time.
I was so focused on the singular act of fighting every bodily impulse that I didn’t fully understand what I was hearing as someone heaved in a breath. I registered, and chanced opening my eyes. Lillian had her mouth covered, but her eyes were open. She stared into my eyes.
Three seconds passed.
Then she took in a breath.
I allowed myself to breathe, joined by others. We got our wind, and watched as the Beast assaulted another, shorter building, trampling it to the ground.
I looked over my shoulder at the building it had already attacked. The back end had blown out, and parts had collapsed. Absolutely nothing still lived there.
“Everyone okay?” Lillian asked.
There were nods all around.
“The gas,” Petey said. “What is it? I might have breathed some in.”
“Probably a nerve gas,” Lillian said. “If he’s about twenty years old, then he’s part of the Wynn generation of warbeasts. A lot of them made their own from internal waste and byproducts. I’ve read up on it, a little extra because Ibott said he was thinking about giving Helen a reserve.”
“That was a no,” Helen said.
“You’re probably immune, by the way.”
“What would happen if we breathed it in?” Gordon asked.
“At this distance, that concentration, carried by the explosion? Probably nothing.”
“Only probably. But if you were unlucky, your throat might stop working, or it wouldn’t work as well, or you’d lose some function in your eyes. If we weren’t wearing clothes, we might lose sphincter control. Maybe bladder control, for the girls.”
“Not the guys?”
“I’m not going to get into anatomy 101, Sy,” Lillian said. “Doesn’t matter anyway, unless you’re taking your pants off.”
“Don’t tempt him,” Mary said.
“Hey!” I protested, to Mary. Then to Lillian, I said, “And it does too matter, I like my sphincter control.”
“We’re all glad for your sphincter control,” Gordon said. “You’d be more unpleasant to be around if you didn’t have any.”
“Enough,” Mary said. “Look.”
The Brechwell Beast was taking a side road. The lights were leading it on its way.
I raised myself up and pulled my clammy shirt away from my chest, trying to make heads or tails of the runny lines there.
“It’s headed in the right direction,” Gordon said.
“Oh, good,” I said.
“You got the distraction you wanted. They’re probably quaking in their boots,” he said.
“Okay,” he said. “While we’re doing that, let’s keep an eye out for one of those rifles. If it can hurt the Brechwell Beast, I wouldn’t mind having one for myself.”
I nodded. The wreckage of the building would be too much trouble to go through.
The Engineer and Petey stared. Petey was especially quiet right now.
“They open and close the gates, to control which routes the Beast can and will travel. It prefers lit area, I guess?” I asked.
“Don’t most of us?” Helen asked.
“Point. It reaches the area we mentioned to the Wry Man, and then, what, they shut the gates and trap it and our enemies in the same space? They hide indoors and…”
Gordon said, “Presumably, the Brechwell Beast pulls the same trick it just did. Fills the area with gas, then ignites it. Nerve gas finishes off those the fire doesn’t.”
I thought of how the horns had caught. “If it’s trapped.”
I looked at Mary. “Is that okay? Percy might be with them.”
She flinched visibly at the mention of the name. “I’d rather get him alive.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because if we didn’t, I wouldn’t be able to believe he wasn’t a clone, that this wasn’t a trick.”
I nodded slowly.
“I’ve thought about it a lot. The Percy thing,” she said, her voice quiet. “I know how it looks and sounds.”
“We trust you,” Lillian jumped in. “Or I do, at least.”
“I do too,” I said. “I believe you. I think you’re right. Though you just put a nasty thought in my head. I’d really hate to find out that the corpse of Fray was a clone, and that the real her was running around somewhere.”
“You might be getting ahead of yourself a little,” Gordon said.
“More than a little,” I admitted. “Let’s go.”
We rounded the perimeter of the oval plaza, picking our way carefully over the portion of roof that was still intact over the ruined, fire-charred stonework. Helen, Mary and I went first, verifying that the ground was steady, before the others. Petey was heavy and the Engineer was heavier still. The dense, hefty body of the machine man was on the most precarious point of a stretch with nothing but thick wooden beams when a somewhat distant impact rocked the city. He wobbled, found his balance, and hopped to safer ground.
“He’s there,” Gordon said. “Fray’s area.”
“You sure?” Petey asked.
“Sure as dammit,” he said.
A moment after he’d finished speaking, there was a flicker of fire. It took a full second for the rumble of the shockwave to sweep past us.
“So soon?” I asked.
“No,” Gordon said, under his breath.
“No? Fray’s doing? She’s blowing it up?”
“No,” Gordon said. He pointed. “If I’m right… then the Beast is there…”
He moved his finger. “The explosion-”
Another explosion occurred, this one close enough that I could get a sense of the particulars, that it was more than one thing detonating in close succession, in two very close-by locations. There was another.
Gordon’s finger moved each time.
“Screams,” Helen said, “Some nearby. It’s a signal.”
“Down!” he shouted.
We got down.
The remainder of the explosions sounded. There was one at the north end of the plaza.
They were hiding indoors. They had access to buildings. Fray’s people are scattered around the area, some on watch, waiting in windows with rifles in hand… but they’re also guarding something.
I could see the damage at the north end. The front and back faces of the building were ruined. The floor was intact, but light did shine through.
“Fray’s making her move,” I said.
“I don’t understand,” Petey said.
“She’s freed the Beast of Brechwell,” I said. “No, not free, but-”
“Unleashed,” Helen said.
They can’t use the gates to steer it anymore. It won’t be trapped. Fray has an escape route, and the Beast…
…Brechwell belongs to the Beast, for now.
“Come on, and hurry,” I said, talking through the grin. “She’s given her response, and we’re still ahead. We’ve just got to take advantage before she gets away. We can get her.”