A silver figure strafed through the vaporized Statehouse, dust streaking in their wake. The rubble had traveled the distance and was crashing down around us. We nine pushed back against the alley walls. The dust cloud was spreading out into the evening sky, and things were darkening.
The building behind us took a pretty heavy hit. I closed my eyes and hoped it wouldn’t collapse. After a moment and nothing happened, I took a breath.
The plume of smoke was descending on us.
Kendall, Odessa, O’Reilly, the Siblings and most of the remaining Anarchists had fallen into a trap. There were no more plans.
The game’s not over yet.
Not until we’re dead.
There were nine of us, cowering from molten metal dotting the alleyway. I looked to the Seer girl. “Do you know where the others are?” I asked.
“I-” she stopped to cringe, screwing her eyes shut as more debris came down. “I don’t work that way.”
“Nevermind.” I hit my radio. “The Statehouse was a trap. Major losses, including Professor O’Reilly, I think. Anybody still out there?”
“Can confirm. This is Professor Miller. To whom am I speaking?”
“Doran, summon of Kendall.”
The woman replied, “Kendall? Is he alive?”
“No. He was with O’Reilly.”
“Damn. That means we’ve lost Gozo.”
“I’m with eight others. We’re not safe here. Where are you?”
“I am hidden. My students are with me. I’m afraid you cannot come here.”
“Anyone else out there?” I asked. Miller was useless.
“I’m still kicking. Forty-eight kills up. I think they may suspect something.” Ash was gleeful.
Good. But not immediately helpful.
“This is Mark.” I recognized the voice. Horse Head.
More importantly, the cloaker.
Our best bet.
“Where are you?”
“He’s not far,” the Seer said.
“We’re coming to you, Mark.”
“No! You’ll lead them to me.”
“We need you to hide us.”
“I’m better off on my own.”
I wasn’t getting anywhere with this. Must keep running.
I took my hand off the coms. “Lead the way,” I said to our guide. Barely hesitating, she took off down the alley. All nine of us ran, keeping our eyes out. We were staying in the shadows. With the taste of the dust cloud in my mouth, and my ribs still pained, I was falling behind.
We moved through a park, much like the one, this all had started in. There was a huge metal statue in our way. Cubist in nature. Sitting on the statue, coughing loudly, was the Bruiser. His helmet was off, and his strained expression changed as he saw us.
Third times the charm.
I shot at him, but between the fatigue and dust, I’d struck the statue instead, leaving a glowing hot-spot. He got up and started building speed towards us. Someone hit him with a slowing effect, and the next person compounded that with a gravitational pull. He was trudging forward all the same. I struck him. I was looking for his totem, but I couldn’t see.
As the Bruiser fought to keep at us, he was set on fire, shocked, and hexed. The hex seemed to take its toll when he fell to his knees. He was still alive, though.
I started forgetting about what was going on, and focusing only on the relationships. The totem had to be nearby. Why couldn’t I see the connection?
I changed up my angle, limping around to the right, to see behind the statue. Finally, I had him. I cranked up my rifle to the highest setting and fired. The lightning bolt which struck shattered it.
The Bruiser, on fire, under intense gravity, and fatally cursed, turned mortal. He screamed, hair igniting, legs breaking, and flesh aging away. In a matter of seconds, he turned to a charred streak on the ground.
Sorry, I thought. But you really needed to die this time.
We didn’t waste time sticking around. Three blocks later, we’d reached our destination. Our front man kicked in the door the Seer led him to, and once I caught up, I tromped into a small apartment behind the rest. Horse Head was without his rubber mask and was hugging his knees in the corner.
“Hide us,” I said breathlessly.
“It won’t matter. They’ll know you’re here. Fuck! This is why I didn’t want to play Anarchist. Mason thought-”
“I don’t care!” I stretched the words out long, staring angrily at him. “Cloak us.”
“He’s done it,” the Seer confirmed. We all took a breath.
In the apartment was a bed. I laid myself down, slowly, onto the cool sheets.
“What are you doing?” one of the Students asked.
They’re watching us. Control.
“Dying, I think,” I said. My ribs were shattered, and I could feel the volume of my breath decreasing. Collapsed lungs. Air in the chest cavity exacerbated by heavy exercise.
My foot was bleeding again, as well. Tired.
I called up Ash. “How’s it going… Ashley?”
“First, fuck you, second, wonderfully. These morons get relaxed, now that they think they’re on the mop up. I might say I’ve lost count but… fifty-two.”
“What’s the…” had to take a breath. “More intel?”
“The human’s masters have totally cleared out. They’re arguing about ‘command structures’,” he said mockingly. “The Sentinel is giving orders, but is clearly unhappy being shafted with the shtick of leader-sheep.”
“Kill him if you can,” I said. “He has too much firepower.”
“Oh. Okeydokey…” There was a pause. “Done’do.” The radio erupted in the sound of shouting and explosions; static followed.
He did it. Tactically killed himself. I had the feeling he wouldn’t do the same, were the stakes higher. Ultimately, he was a brilliant sociopath.
The Sentinel was dead. Ash was dead. The playing field had changed.
“The Sentinel is out.”
Miller spoke, ecstatic, “Excellent! They’re leaderless and weak. I’ve searched and you ten are all that remain, regarding ground forces. Others are being hunted, or have dropped out.”
“Like we should,” Mark said, now up and sitting in a desk chair. The others were sitting on the carpet or leaning against the walls. Lounging.
“If we’re going to have a hope of winning this, we need to capitalize on their confusion,” Miller said. I really didn’t want to. I wanted to nap. But I did agree.
“You have a plan?” I asked.
“We know now that they are congregated at the Museum. Our only option-”
“-Guerrilla warfare,” I said, beating her to the punchline.
“Yes. We can buffer you from here and rig the battlefield with curses, but that is all. It’s up to you now. I wish you all luck. Miller away.”
I started to lean up, but my chest protested. I stayed down. Students in the room were discussing dropping out of the games, and looking around, we were already down two people. Eight, and falling fast. What were we fighting for, at this point, if not to win? We were fighting for honor, I decided. Recognition, that none of us was party to a surrender.
“Who wants to get shot?” I asked. “Because if anyone wants to leave, that’s the way you’ll be going.” I held my breath and pulled up into a sitting position. “We need to discuss now our best options. We know where they are, they’re at the Museum, and they don’t know where we are. They’re leaderless and low on firepower. What’s our angle?”
It was funny to me that so many in our numbers had resigned themselves to silence. The Seer, her my only match in enthusiasm, answered, “a surprise attack?”
“We’re not assassins, though. I see two swords, a bow, a hammer, a Seer, a Shielder, a Cloaker, and me with a gun. Anyone else in bad shape, because I can barely get myself out the door. I know I won’t survive in combat – just factually.”
Horse Head, Mark, spoke, “The Museum is huge. You could get into firing position. I can get you there.”
“Now we’re talking,” I beamed. Finally.
Mark had rubbed off, and the Student with a hammer spoke up. “I can bust just about any shield they put up. That’s what I do.”
“I’ll get your back,” one swordsman said to the next. “You get mine.”
“You with me?” I asked the bowman.
“No,” she said, “I’m better at ground level. My shots bounce.”
Our Shielder, voice small, said, “I’d really like not to die.”
“Nobody dies in the War Games,” the Hammer said.
“No?” the Shielder retorted, “They die, wither, and fry like that guy back there.”
“Don’t be a pansy,” the Bow said.
“You’re not,” I took control. “Death is a sleep, following life, which is one prolonged act of dying. Nobody wants to suffer any more than they have to. So if you get hit, I promise it won’t be drawn out. We’ll cut it short if we have to.”
That seemed to comfort him, kind of.
All eight of us didn’t say a word for a while, knowing that there was no other way to procrastinate. We had a game plan, and we had a target. All that was left was for us to get moving. Everyone was tired, and I had already taken a beating. No one wanted to go because there was no chance of us making it through.
Odds are, we’ve already lost the game. All games are decided before they’ve even begun. The question is, who makes that the decision. I knew whom.
Something to think on when the timing was better.
Finally, the second swordsmen said it. “Time to go.”
The Museum was huge. You could have fit a small town into it.
The roofs were unreasonably tall, enough so that there were metal walkways up above, for lighting. Without rails they were perilous, but the eight of us tread carefully. If someone fell, we were majorly screwed.
Down below us, there were nearly two hundred people. I had some serious respect for Mark. His blanket of imperceptibility on us was strong, to evade the eyes of all those Magus. They were, however, none of them very adept.
Except for those few, like Christopher. I scanned for him in the crowd, as I walked. It was worrying that I couldn’t locate him, even as I sensed.
There was a balance to everything. The crowd had a natural causality. Groupings and order. Christopher should have been among the remaining Students of Wulff, as I recognized a few. Maybe he was on a bathroom break.
Yeah, let’s go with that.
We followed the wobbling metal paths until we found some place for me to set up. The walkways led to a balcony, and an exit, presumably an access point, actually. The balcony had railing, though, and that was better than exposed lighting rigs. I hopped over the railing and left the others behind.
“Bye,” I said, knowing that I really wouldn’t be seeing these people again.
They all responded in kind and went off.
I ducked down beneath the railing and counted the seconds. The invisibility field passed away, and I held my breath. There was no shouting, only the continued ambient chatter down below.
The sixth sense was a vague thing. It was achieved through awareness, through a priori knowledge, and generally just grokking things.
I really truly didn’t know how this was going to go down. And, even though I was hurting, I acknowledged how invigorating this was. There was only the task.
I dared not speak, or breathe, or blink. I counted the seconds.
Time was up.
Just as the roar of combat began, I emerged to opened fire.