Chapter Fourteen

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The swarm had begun. Long had the sleepers been dormant, buried deep in the loamy soil of the forest. Over a century had passed since the last great swarm, when the tilt of the planet's axis and the gravitational pull of the moon were in a certain alignment, and when the temperature conditions were just right. Those conditions had occurred since the last great swarm, but the sleepers would not wake without one last key ingredient that had been lacking in those otherwise opportune windows of time since the last great swarm: torrential rain.
And rain this day fell in great abundance. As the storms raged above, the water soaked ever deeper into the earth. A little would do no more than satisfy the tiny needs of the sleepers for water that allowed them to survive their long night. More might wake a few, which made their way to the surface, only to be eaten by the predators above. A deep soaking, such as they were receiving now, when the other factors were properly aligned, was the ages-old signal to awaken, to leave their earthy lair and seek the ancient spawning grounds in the river.
Yes, the small swarms were little more than short-lived delicacies for the things that lived and died on the surface.
When the great swarm emerged, the hunters suddenly became the hunted, for the swarm was hungry, starving after more than a century asleep. By the thousands, then tens and hundreds of thousands, then in the millions did the creatures emerge. They scampered in an loping hop that carried them as fast as a human could run, their direction guided by ancient instinct, and the forest quickly filled with the deafening sound of their high-pitched chirping. All that lay between them and their destination would be laid waste, consumed by countless tiny starving mouths rimmed with needle sharp teeth.
***
Calhoun snapped up his rifle toward the enemy warrior, but Reza deflected the barrel with his hand as the Kreelan rendered Reza a salute, bringing her left fist to her right breast and kneeling in the mud before him.
Staring first at the warrior, then at Reza, who returned the strange salute, Calhoun muttered, "What in the name of..."
He broke off as the air was riven by bestial cries and shrieks that erupted from the forest and overwhelmed the sounds of nearby battle between more warriors and the human defenders.
Reza and the warrior instinctively looked in the direction of the forest, even though their view was blocked by the palisade, as more warriors dropped to the ground beside their leader.
The volume of the roars, shrieks, and cries continued to build, and it was clear even without being able to see them that an impossibly large number of animals was stampeding through the forest and coming closer.
Then Calhoun heard the other sound that began to eclipse even the cacophony of the animals: a high pitched scree-scree-scree that made his flesh crawl.
"Lord of All," he whispered, terror etched on his face as he stared in the direction of the ever-rising sound. Even the Kreelans turned to look at him, confusion and a trace of fear clearly written on their humanoid faces. "It can't be."
"What is it?" When Calhoun didn't answer, Reza grabbed him by the elbow. "What is it, Calhoun?"
"It's a Great Swarm," Calhoun told him, having to shout over the bedlam. "It was just a theory that some of the biologists had, that these little amphibian-like animals that come up out of the ground this time of year sometimes had massive swarms." He shook his head. "That hasn't happened since the colony was founded, and no one ever believed it."
The warriors at the top of the palisade shouted a warning just before something massive slammed into the wooden wall. All but two of the blue-skinned aliens were sent tumbling to the ground. Some managed to roll gracefully, breaking their falls, while others screamed when the hit, shattering bone and tearing muscle tissue.
A worse fate awaited the pair that had hung on. Two neo-tigers vaulted over the sharpened tips of the palisade wall, snatching the hapless warriors as if they were helpless meat animals. Four more warriors died as the beasts, crashed through them, still clutching the first pair of warriors in their massive jaws.
Grabbing Reza by the shoulder, Calhoun shouted, "Come on!"
The two men turned and fled toward the center of town. The wall trembled under nature's assault as smaller creatures slammed into the palisade in their blind panic as they fled from the swarm. Hesitating only a moment, the warriors ran after the two men, not pursuing them so much as fleeing whatever awaited them beyond the walls.
As he ran, Calhoun could only think of one thing: getting to his children.
***
"Help me up, kid," Eustus gasped, reaching for Talia. "Lord of all," he said as she pulled him to his feet, "I feel like I'm covered with ants that are biting the heck out of me."
"Here." Chunlan stepped toward him, thrusting the assault rifle into his tingling hands. "You will need this."
As he stood there, cradling the rifle, she went back to the small kitchen and returned with a long and wicked looking carving knife.
"It won't come to that," Eustus said, eyeing the weapon, which he suspected carried a razor sharp edge.
The old woman replied only with an indignant huff as she went to stand near the front window, staring out into the gray maelstrom beyond.
Eustus frowned as he heard the unmistakable sound of weapons fire coming from the eastern side of town.
"They have come," Chunlan said quietly. She looked down at Ben, who had slipped his hand in hers and was holding on tight. "Do not fear, child," she told him.
"I'm worried about Dad," Ben rasped, his eyes momentarily holding Talia's.
"He'll be okay," Eustus said.
"How can you know that?" Ben snapped angrily.
Eustus came over and knelt in front of him so his eyes were level with Ben's. "Because Reza's with him. Reza's not just a regular Marine, a grunt like me and the others. He's...he's something more. I'm not sure even how to describe it, because I'm not sure myself if I know everything Reza can do."
Ben glared at him for a moment, then said, "Is he magic?"
Eustus blinked, the thought never really having occurred to him. "I know it might sound silly for me to say this, but now that you mention it, I think he is."
"For real?" Talia was staring at him, wide eyed.
Nodding, Eustus said, "For real."
"He would have to be," Chunlan said in a low voice, "for him to have brought you here so soon after you were bitten." She favored him with a speculative stare. "You should have long been dead."
Just then the tempo of the firing spiked, rising into a crescendo that just as quickly faded into sporadic shots.
Getting to his feet, Eustus went toward the window. "That's not good," he muttered.
The constant hammering of the rain slowly gave way to the sound of hundreds of human voices screaming in terror and pain. Then, as if it was part of a symphony that was gradually building to a horrible climax, the screams were overlaid with animal cries and howls, and then something else.
"Oh, no," Chunlan whispered, her eyes widening.
"What is it?" Eustus demanded. When she didn't answer, he grabbed her by the elbow, and her frightened eyes turned to lock with his as the high-pitched keening noise grew ever louder drowning out everything but the rain. "What's going on?"
"It is a Great Swarm," she said in a terrified voice. "A plague of small creatures from the forest that will kill us all!"
"Amphibians," Talia said. "Some biologists think there are millions of them that hibernate, then come swarming out of the ground when conditions are just right."
"How big are they?" Eustus demanded. "Can't we just shoot them?"
Chunlan laughed. "They are smaller than your palm, and there are millions. Millions!"
Ben yelped as something big slammed into the outside of the house, and they saw a hulking shadow in the rain pause, as if looking in at them, before darting away with frightening speed.
"That was a neo-tiger," Ben whispered.
"The animals flee the swarm," Chunlan said. "And the town is right in their path."
Eustus didn't have to think much about the next move. "Is there a way to get on the roof?"
Chunlan shook her head. "No, not without a ladder, and I do not have one."
"Where, then?" Eustus demanded as more things, smaller this time, thumped into the house. Shadows began to flash past the house, and were soon joined by screaming people. Eustus stared, aghast, as a woman went down with a gurgling scream just beyond the door. "We've got to get higher!"
"The hotel!" Talia said. "It doesn't have a ladder outside, but one of the back rooms has one to the roof."
Chunlan eyed her. "And how would you know this?" With a glance at Eustus, she said, "Only the...ladies...live in those rooms upstairs."
"That's not important," Eustus growled. He silently cursed as a flood of things and people streamed down the street, each ignoring the others as they fled in terror from whatever was coming. The scree-scree-scree sound was so loud now that his ears were ringing. Darting into the kitchen, he grabbed a carving knife and gave it to Talia. "Use this on anything that comes at you," he said. "Don't try to kill whatever it might be, just poke it to try and warn it off, okay?" Talia nodded as she took it, holding it tight.
"What about me?" Ben asked, his voice trembling with fear.
"I've got something special in mind for you. Come here." Eustus knelt down and had Ben climb up on his shoulders, putting his feet in the webbing of his combat harness and wrapping his forearms under the shoulder straps. "Just hold on, okay?"
Ben nodded. Eustus could feel the boy's body shaking.
"I'll go first," Eustus told the others, "then you, Talia, then Chunlan."
The house shook as something massive slammed into it, and they all cried out in surprise and fear as something outside roared. Eustus whipped the muzzle of his rifle toward the far wall where whatever it was had struck and fired a short burst that blasted through the thin siding of the house. Another roar, this time one of pain and rage, echoed through the house, then the thing was gone.
"A bear," Talia whispered. "A bear got inside the wall!"
"Probably more than one," Chunlan said quietly. "We should probably just stay here."
"To heck with that," Eustus said. "We're going to the hotel and getting out of this mess. Talia, you hang onto my combat harness and don't let go, no matter what, okay?" She nodded. "And just tell me where to go. I have no idea how to find the hotel, certainly not in this muck."
"Okay," Talia breathed.
"Let's go." Eustus moved to the door. Putting one hand on the lever while holding his rifle with the other, he said, "Ready?"
The others nodded.
"May the gods help us," Chunlan whispered.
"Okay," Eustus said, saying his own silent prayer to the Lord of All, "here we go." Whipping open the door, he and the others plunged into the earsplitting mayhem that lay outside.
***
"Holy shit," Walker whispered as she stared through the rifle's scope into the artificially enhanced madness of the streets on the eastern side of the town. She couldn't make out much in the way of details, for the rain was falling too heavily even for the scope to pull out much definition, but it was far better than with the unaided eye. The buildings across the street were lost in the rain, which was falling even harder now, if that was even possible, than it had been when Stalin had sent her and the other Marines here to the top of the hotel.
"I hope Stalin doesn't expect us to shoot in this shit," Chang shouted from his position a few meters away over the din of the rain, animals, and screaming people. Leffler, on her other side, said something unintelligible, but the sentiment came through loud and clear.
"If he wants us to shoot something," she said, "he'll tell us. In the meantime..."
"What the hell is that?" Chang shouted, cutting her off.
Two enormous shadows, each of which was bigger than the troop carrier Yamada had driven off in, were racing down one of the streets, heading west through the town. Smaller shadows, moving even faster, flowed around them like the water of a river around a pair of islands.
"Those are goddamn bears!" Leffler cried, aiming his weapon at them.
Walker cursed under her breath, then shouted, "Hold your fire, you idiot!" Keying her comm link, she said, "Stalin, are you seeing the shit going on down on the street?"
"Yes," he replied. "Things will get even more interesting soon."
"What about the people?" Walker demanded. She knew she didn't have much in the way of empathy or scruples, but she couldn't imagine the nightmare of the townsfolk who had thought they were going to have to defend themselves from a small contingent of Kreelan warriors, only to be faced with whatever this was. But Stalin knew what was going on, or had at least suspected. For the first time in a long while, she was angry with him for being such a bastard. "What the hell is happening?"
"We are safe up here," he reassured her. "Just enjoy this...display of nature." Then he clicked off.
"Goddamnit," Walker hissed. Looking through her scope again, she watched in helpless fury as the village defenders were trampled and torn apart in the streets below.
***
Ren-Li'ahr and the others with her fled after Reza and the human, but after a brief time she realized that Reza's destiny lay in a different direction than her own. He must be driven by a different imperative, perhaps something to do with the human in his company, or he would have turned to stand his ground against the tide of creatures now flooding into the town. The larger animals, clearly the most dangerous, had vaulted over the palisade wall, while others had streamed through the holes her sisters had cut in the sturdy wood. Then, with an ear-splitting crash, even amidst the other deafening bedlam, the gates on that side of the wall crashed inward.
The other warriors who had fought the humans near the gate had by now joined her. Not all had survived, and not all had been killed by the weapons of the humans.
"We stand and fight here," she shouted, gesturing for the warriors to form a line to block the street.
As the warriors quickly took up their positions, swords and shrekkas at the ready, Ren-Li'ahr looked to where Reza and his companion were rapidly disappearing in the rain, and saw him glance over his shoulder at her. Bowing her head, she rendered him a brief but heartfelt salute. Her task had been to find him, and so she had. She had not been able to bring him to battle as she would have liked, but glory would yet be hers. She felt in the harmony of the Bloodsong the agreement of her sisters: if they could not face Reza in battle, then they would buy time with their lives that he could do whatever he intended. To die on behalf of a Desh-Ka priest, the only one to have lived among their people for thousands of generations, would bring great glory to the Empress.
With howls of fury, Ren-Li'ahr and her companions turned to fight the rampaging beasts of the forest.
***
Reza's heart was heavy with a sense of loss that was countered by a feeling of intense pride as Ren-Li'ahr and the other warriors gave up their pursuit and instead offered him what protection they could at the price of their lives. "May thy Way be long and glorious," he said quietly in the New Tongue as he turned back and caught up to Calhoun.
"What the devil are they doing?" The blacksmith cried, having dared to take a quick glance behind them.
"They are buying us what time they can," Reza told him.
"Why would they do that and not just kill us?"
"Because that is their Way," Reza told him, knowing that Calhoun could not understand.
"You're insane," Calhoun told him, then cursed as something about the size of a large dog darted out in front of him from a side street, followed by dozens more. The creatures, a kind of herbivore, ignored the humans as they charged toward the west side of town. A mass of smaller animals, about the size of Terran house cats, joined them. Calhoun tripped on one and would have gone down had Reza not grabbed his arm and steadied him.
From somewhere off to the left they heard basso growls followed by a piercing roar.
"Lord of All," Calhoun shouted. "Bears! Run!"
Run, as if they were not already fleeing as fast as their legs could carry them. Reza would have whisked Calhoun to another place had he not been so focused on merely keeping his feet. To move through space with his mind still required a great deal of concentration, and he feared that they might wind up somewhere other than where Reza intended. Tesh-Dar had told him and Esah-Zhurah that such things had happened to some new to their powers, and he simply couldn't risk it.
Darting to the left down another sides street, they found it empty...for the moment. The two men pounded through the deepening water flooding the street, then hopped up onto the elevated walkway that ran the length of the buildings to the next street. There, they encountered more animals, but none that were threatening. With a turn onto yet another street, they again found themselves fighting through a torrent of animals. Something bigger than a horse loped out of the rain toward them. Calhoun blasted it with his rifle, but it just kept coming, roaring in rage. Reza added the firepower from his own weapon, and the thing finally collapsed into a skidding heap, smaller animals darting around it, as the two men raced past.
"There!" Calhoun shouted, pointing at a house that Reza recognized as Chunlan's.
With a final sprint, they ran, kicked, and butt-stroked their way through the teeming mass of animals to reach the house, only to find the door hanging open.
"Oh, God, no," Calhoun cried as he went inside.
"They're not here," Reza said, having taken a brief moment to seek ahead of them with his second sight.
Calhoun turned to him, a stricken look on his face. "Where could they have gone?"
"Ask yourself," Reza told him, keeping a wary eye on the door, "where would Chunlan go?"
With a bitter laugh, Calhoun said, "The devil if I know. That woman should've died a long time ago. If it was up to her, she'd still be here."
"Then where would Talia have gone? Eustus does not know the town well enough, and would listen to her unless Chunlan led them." He put a hand on Calhoun's shoulder to steady him. "She is your blood and you have taught her well. Think: where would she go."
Taking a deep breath, Calhoun nodded. "High ground. She'd know to get to high ground in a situation like this. Most of the animals can't climb, or wouldn't if they were in a panic like this. And the swarm...they'll mostly stay near the ground." He gritted his teeth. "I hope."
"And where is the nearest high ground?" Reza asked.
"The hotel!" Calhoun nearly shouted. "It's one of the highest buildings and it's not far."
"Then let us go." Reza led Calhoun back out into the madness.
They'd barely rounded the corner of the house when something huge appeared out of the rain.
Reza's memory flashed in time with the lightning that illuminated a saurian creature that reminded him with painful clarity of the genoth he and Esah-Zhurah had once slain. The thing's maw was briefly frozen in time by the lightning as it lunged toward Calhoun with a roar. Reza barely had time to shove his friend clear of the snapping jaws and wickedly long and sharp teeth. Then, in a smooth motion, he drew his sword and ran it up through the creature's palate, driving the weapon's tip into its brain.
Only then did he hear Calhoun's scream. Whipping his head around, Reza saw him vanishing into the downpour, held firmly in the clutches of a neo-tiger.

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