Undead Chaos, page 26
My head swam and the world around me was muted, as if I were trying to listen to it underwater. My ears throbbed, ringing in pain. I tried to stand, but was only able to make it onto all fours. I grunted as the weight on my wrist sent bolts of sharp pain up my arm.
As I tried to rise, my movements became agonizingly slow, like I was buried in molasses. Three armored bodies and Quinn lay in heaps around me.
Quinn and Santiago stirred, another guard groaned, but the one that had been in the lead lay motionless. He was face down, but what little I could see of his armor was burnt and twisted.
“Clever,” someone said. “But did you really think we’d be fooled twice by your girlfriend’s parlor tricks?”
I struggled to turn my head in the direction of the voice, blinking to clear my vision from the field of stars. I squinted, then curled my lips in anger.
The Conduit smiled pleasantly. “Hello, Marcus.”
I pressed against the trapping spell with a curse.
“Oh, come now,” he chided. “There’s no need for that kind of language. You wouldn’t want to besmirch the respect I have for your family, would you?”
“Funny way of showing it,” I snarled, finally finding my voice.
The Conduit glanced around. “Yes, very unfortunate. Believe me when I say I regret those that have been hurt or killed. But it is for the greater good.”
“Why?” I demanded.
“Why am I here?” he asked. “For Hexcalibur, of course. Honestly, Marcus. I can’t believe you haven’t figured that out already. Your family has been the keepers of the sword for generations, so of course we had to come here.”
“But the Barrier—”
“Was a complete surprise.” His eye twitched. “Thank goodness enough of my people were inside before it went up. It’s an annoyance, but I’m sure we’ll figure a way around it.” He raised an eyebrow. “I assume you won’t help with that.”
“Shocking,” he said sarcastically. He opened his mouth to continue, but a noise nearby diverted his attention. Santiago’s surviving man was on his knees, attempting to stand. The Conduit sighed.
“Pardon me a moment.” He strode over to the guard and swept his hand in a batting motion. The man launched into the air, landing awkwardly on his side some twenty feet away. His arm broke with a sickening crack, yet he never cried out. The Conduit nodded at his handiwork, then walked back to me.
In the light of day I could make out the details of The Conduit better than when I saw him last. He was close to my age, but the miles on his body had been rough. His bright red hair was lined with gray and his face was strained from years of dark magic. He was thinner than I remembered—almost emaciated.
Despite his skeletal frame, he pulsated with sickening power. I could feel the pressure inside him begging to be released. It was as if the beings he’d absorbed for so long sensed freedom was near and were struggling to break loose.
He sat cross-legged in front of me. “You know, I was actually worried this would be difficult. Your family is renowned for its combat skills, and your guards are a force to be reckoned with. Not to mention those beasts in the forest. My goodness they were vicious. I certainly didn’t expect that, either. Things seemed lost for a moment.” He grinned. “Then you showed up.
“The funny thing about all this,” he added, his neck ticking involuntarily, “is that you and your sense of nobility actually solved all my problems. I just had to provide you a few traces of a plan, a couple hints, and you did all the work. Granted, there was a chance that you’d die in the escape or fall to one of my agents here, but I had faith in you. And you proved me right.”
My eyes widened with horror. I hadn’t escaped from the Quaos facility, I was allowed to leave. He must have planted the idea for how to defeat the cell magic when he showed me his visions of the future. Then he knowingly removed the majority of his forces to ease our escape. But if he left traces of his plan in my mind, then that meant...
“Finally put two and two together, eh?” he asked, noting the dismay on my face. “About time.”
I stared at him and my stomach sank. “You didn’t know where it was, did you?”
“No,” he said with a laugh. “Well, not specifically. But you did.” The Conduit ruffled my hair like I was a kid.
His gaze shifted to the swords on my back and he smiled with intoxication. “Hello, lovely.”
The assault rifle was nowhere near me, so I pressed against the trapping spell, inching my hand down to my holster. The Conduit rolled his eyes and slammed his fist into my nose. The cartilage snapped and blood gushed down my face.
The Conduit winced as he rubbed his palm. “Give me some credit, Marcus. Do you really think I’d offer you the chance to harm me? You are weak, but you are also exceptionally clever, and that makes you dangerous. This spell is far beyond your capabilities, and struggling against it is wasted effort. It kept Simeon Fawkes down and his Skill outweighed yours tenfold.”
The Conduit gazed at the battle raging around us with sadness. “Look at this,” he said, waving a trembling hand. “All this death and destruction. Not just here, but across history. It’s madness, Marcus, complete madness. The Elves knew it thousands of years ago, and most of them fled. For good reason too. Skilled or Normal, we are a species obsessed with selfish desires, greed and deceit. We butcher ourselves in the name of justice, religion and ideals. But those are all fronts, every one of them. They are masks for our true, evil nature.”
He shook his head. “No, you and I are on our knees for a reason. We will bow to an era of madness, knowing that in aftermath of the apocalypse that is to come, our world grows stronger and more united. We will kneel because we must be humbled as the new world is born.”
He gripped the hilt and yanked Hexcalibur from the scabbard. The moment it sprang clear, the air around us contorted—as if trying to flee.
“All these years,” The Conduit purred softly, admiring the blade. It vibrated with nauseating power, echoing the mischief and evil of thousands of years. “All the time and effort spent creating monstrosities and absorbing iota after iota of power. All for this one moment.”
He ran his palm along the blade, slicing the skin open neatly. He clenched his fist, squeezing blood onto the grass.
“Thank you, Marcus,” he said earnestly. “You have given me the key to our world’s survival. The chaos we bring will bond all people in the fight for survival. They shall face the end as a single entity, and from the ashes of despair and destruction, a stronger, more cohesive society will arise. No more separation between Normals and Skilled. No more witch hunts or persecutions. Because of this.” He gazed at the blade. “And because of you. You who brought it to me. Generations from now, our descendants will sing your praises.”
With that, he called upon every ounce of his Skill, swung the blade over head, and drove it deep into the bloody ground between us.
The dam burst and the Skill rushed from him.
Waves of raw, unfettered power lanced down his arms, magnifying a thousand times as they traveled through the hilt of the sword and into the ground. The blade exploded with red light and the heat of The Conduit’s insanity washed over me, engulfing me in the madness.
For a moment I glimpsed the openness of his mind and understood how a man could lose touch with sanity. By using his body and soul to store power well beyond the human limit, he had baked all his lucid circuit breakers long ago. His passion, tenacity, determination and forethought remained intact, but his humanity had simply eroded. Like a hideous virus, the idea of bonding all people through destruction had taken root and grown until nothing else remained.
The explosion of havoc ripped holes in reality all around us. Areas of the lawn turned brown and died while other sections heaved and buckled. The sky exploded with the
Quaos agents all over the property began thrashing with pleasure as their leader wailed with ecstasy. Many dropped to their knees to cry thanks to the heavens while others were so overcome with madness, they ran screaming in all directions. Those incapable of handling the psychic overload from The Conduit, however, simply fell forward and stopped moving.
I, too, fought against the assault on sanity.
The raw emotions from The Conduit crashed against my rational mind. I gritted my teeth, struggling to prevent the mounting force of his lunacy from breaking down my barriers. Pain stabbed behind my eyes and blood poured from my nose. The red liquid flowed into my mouth, filling it with the familiar metallic taste.
Before me Hexcalibur strengthened as it fed off the madman. True to his name, he was funneling all of his power and instability through the blade. It sucked The Conduits’ Skill like a vampire and ejected wave after wave of insanity and chaos.
The agent howled an unearthly scream, but made no move to extract himself from the process. He gripped the hilt tightly, willingly giving himself to the cause.
The world—his new world—would drown in hellish instability.
The funny thing about havoc is that you cannot control what it does or where it goes. Much like the electrons of a lightning bolt, chaos travels wherever it wants and does whatever it likes. This had two significant effects that I was willing to bet The Conduit hadn’t thought of.
The first was that the family Barrier, which was designed to maintain order in an unstable environment, sputtered several times before vanishing all together. As it collapsed, I felt the psychic blow as hundreds of attackers poured onto our property.
Many fell to the trappings and creatures of the forest, but their numbers were great and too many would survive to join the battle.
The second effect of the insanity pouring from Hexcalibur was the loss of stability on my trapping spell. The bonds that held me snapped like an old rubber band. Freedom rushed into me like breath to a drowning man.
I inhaled deeply and stumbled to my feet. Blood seeped down my chin and dripped onto my shirt, but I stood and stared at the madman kneeling before me. With a growl, I staggered over, drew back, and punched him in the face. The Conduit stopped screaming long enough to stare at me in surprise.
“How?” he cried.
I grabbed him by the lapels of his robes and jerked him to his feet. His hands came free of the hilt, but the sword continued to draw upon his power. Before he could react I yanked the sword from the dirt.
Blinding pain exploded inside me as the sword began feasting on my own Skill as well. Screams from distant realms filled my head while my hand felt as if the skin was being peeled from the bone. I felt the sword grasping for me, begging to consume more, but I resisted the urge to give in to its demand. Instead, I pressed back against the howling blade with my Skill, then drove it deep into The Conduit’s gut.
His eyes widened with pain and fear as a different, horrified scream erupted from his throat. The power of chaos flowed into him at a rate not even his expanded, unstable mind could withstand. He clawed at his face, peeling skin with his fingernails and thrashing as if he were on fire.
The sword grabbed me, but I forced my hands to release both the hilt and The Conduit. I stumbled backward and the man fell to his knees as the weapon of mischief and curses consumed him. The magnified entropy filled his body, rending flesh. Then, with a final cry, he detonated like a supernova. The blast vaporized his living tissue, and the shockwave threw me on to my back.
Bone and sinew shredded until nothing remained of The Conduit but a few burning scraps of red cloth.
As the echo of the explosion diminished, Hexcalibur clattered to the ground, turning dull once more. I rolled to my knees and crawled to where it lay. It was scorching hot, so I removed the scabbard and slid the sword into it without touching anything. Once secure, I hefted the scabbard onto my back, making an X with my own sword, and cinched it tight.
In the wake of the madman’s demise, the world around me sputtered and popped as normalcy struggled to reclaim our world. The holes in reality stitched back together while the sun and moon returned to their proper state.
Unfortunately, the barrier failed to reenergize. I could feel Quaos agents crashing through the woods and knew they’d be on us within minutes. There was little time to collect our forces and mount a counterattack. I saw the assault rifle several feet away and picked it up. The heaviness of the weapon was comforting.
I turned to find Santiago and Quinn kneeling next to the fallen guard.
“Santiago?” I asked.
The guard shook his helmet. “Mercer took the brunt of the explosion.” He looked at me. “What happened?”
“The Conduit rigged the well with the equivalent of a magical land mine,” I said. “Mercer inadvertently detonated it.”
Tears leaked down Quinn’s cheeks. “He saved our lives.”
I blinked back tears, but said nothing. Had I opted to stay and fight rather than try and run with Hexcalibur, maybe Mercer would still be alive. The guilt pressed against my heart. It would stay with me for a long time.
As I moved toward the survivors, the sickening stench of brimstone filled my nose. Nausea overwhelmed me. I staggered forward.
“Marcus, what’s wrong?” Quinn asked, rushing to catch me.
“Penetration,” I gasped, struggling to keep my food down.
A roar split the reality of our world, and terror, the likes of which I hadn’t felt in over fourteen years, gripped me.
Not even the passage of time could erase the memory of that sound. It was burned into my soul.
The great evil of my childhood was here.
Hellcat Hath No Fury
“Santiago,” I said cautiously, moving Quinn toward the guard. “Grab Mercer and your surviving man and get to the hospital wing now.”
He rose to his feet and leaned heavily on one leg. “My duty is to protect you and the family,”
“I know, but you’re injured. Take care of your people by getting them to safety.”
Santiago stared at me, then lifted his dead compatriot as if he weighed nothing. He limped to his other man and helped him to his feet, then dragged his people toward the house.
“You too, Quinn,” I said.
She pressed herself to me. “No.”
“Please,” I begged. “I know what’s coming and you don’t want to be a part of it. Get out of here.”
Fire burned in her eyes. “I told you I’m here to fight.”
I clenched my jaw. “Fine.”
She pulled away and gently patted my cheek. “Smart boy.”
“Marcus!” my mother called as she jogged toward us. She was dressed in her traditional Huntress wardrobe of tight white pants and a thin white leather breastplate. Her hair was coming loose from its ponytail and she was filthy. Her outfit was splattered with blood, but none of it appeared to be hers.
She wrapped me in a huge hug. “Thank goodness you’re alright. I heard from some of the guards that you were here.”
“You’re covering me in blood,” I squeaked as she crushed me in her arm.
She released me. “Sorry.”
Then she noticed the pair of swords on my back.
“Marcus, what are you doing with that?” she asked in a dark voice.
“I felt it, too” she said.
There was a crashing sound and a handful of Quaos agents burst through the tree line. I spun around, snapping the assault rifle into my shoulder, but didn’t squeeze the trigger.
The agents were sprinting in every direction, shrieking in terror.
There was another deafening roar that attacked my sanity with gusto. It was followed by a human scream of raw horror that was suddenly cut short. More surviving Quaos agents poured onto the lawn, clawing over one another in panic.
It was getting closer.
“Angela!” my father shouted as he rounded the corner of the house. He, too, was filthy and his robes torn. The fancy hilt of his fencing sword glinted in the sunlight, and he slid the blade into the scabbard. He was sweaty and breathing hard, but otherwise showed no signs of physical damage. My parents hugged and my father nodded to me.
“Marcus.” Then he frowned. “Is that Hexcalibur?”
“Hey, Dad. And yes it is. We’ll talk about it later, okay?”
He started to say something, but paused. “Okay. You look awful, by the way,” he added.
I wiped the dried blood from my face. “You’re no sexpot yourself.”
My father smiled, but grew serious as he glanced toward the woods. “The forest traps have only succeeded in slowing it. Angela, go back to the Homestead and round up some guards. Make sure they are appropriately armed.”
Mom gave him a peck on the cheek and dashed toward the house with the speed of a jaguar.
Dad turned to my partner. “You’ve grown into a very beautiful woman, Quinn,”
She blinked and opened her mouth, but couldn’t find her voice.
“I assume she’s joining us,” my father said to me.
“Good. We’ll need all the help we can get. We also need your Skill, son,” he added, indicating my assault rifle.