26: Long Is The Way, And Hard

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Hatches, their edges barely perceptible when closed, opened in the featureless gray decking of Lia's platform as Ever ran toward her friends. Skeletal turrets in matte black metal rose out of them with a soft mechanical winding noise, topped with slim, threatening structures that folded outward like the pump handle of a well. Their lines were square and chunky, but she knew guns when she saw them. And they were aimed directly at Sephine, Jared, and Acel.

Her scream of warning was cut off by the high shriek of the weapons opening fire, and it felt almost as if her heart had stopped when the strafing ammunition cut through the small group of Blessed and Valley dwellers in burning lines of crackling white and blue.

But they didn't fall down. Ever saw Acel check himself after the initial burst of fire, feeling his chest and stomach and back in search of the horrible, gaping wounds the bullets had made. He found nothing. They stood there, in the line of fire, unharmed, for a brief, insane moment before ducking down below the deadly storm.

The guns were finding their marks in the remaining Damned, several dozen of whom were already lying dead all over the stone shelf. The weapons seemed to be aiming themselves, moving and whirring and adjusting with incredible speed and pinpoint accuracy, eating up the Damned like a fire burning through dry brush.

She realized suddenly that the bullets—or whatever they were—had gone through her friends, just not through their flesh. The machines had known, somehow, what to look for, aiming with superhuman precision around the innocent flesh of Ever's company while decimating the enemy.

Acel, Jared, Sephine, and the two rangers were pressed to the stone floor with their hands over their heads. The firing must have lasted for several minutes, at least, the streaming tracer shots lighting into the bubbling mass of Damned like red-hot cattle brands fired from a bow.

The quiet afterward was eerie and long; Ever could hear the innocuous scrapes and cloth sounds of her friends getting up and dusting themselves off across the stone of the platform.

When she turned back to the gray dais, Lia was standing there calmly, hands at her waist, back in her fitted gray outfit, and a circular shaft had opened in the center of the platform, its circumference lit faintly with white light.

Acel and Jared walked up; Jared took her hand quietly and squeezed it. She laid a hand on his chest, checking him for wounds, without even thinking about it. She blushed when she realized she was essentially caressing his chest and stomach in front of a group of people.

"I'm fine," said Jared, taking her other hand gently. Acel frowned and cleared his throat.

"The rest of us are fine, too, thanks for asking." Ever's blushed deepened and Sephine, of all things, laughed deeply as she walked up.

"We knew this place had defenses of some kind," she said, "but no one has ever seen them before. These make our weapons look like toys."

"I didn't know what to do," said Ever. "We didn't know—"

"I'm sorry," said Sephine. "I should have prepared you better. I thought I'd be here...no one expected...whatever this attack was."

"It's him," said Ever. "Azariah Thayne. I can feel him."

Sephine nodded slowly.

"I felt something too...a pressure—but I don't have much ability. Rest assured that Mother Greta will be watching, from below."

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