Chapter Fifteen

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"Left!" Talia shouted, tugging on Eustus's combat harness. "Go left!"
He did as she said, turning the corner of the building they'd been hugging for the last few dozen meters. He was as frightened as he'd ever been in his life, but he swallowed down the bile that bubbled up in the back of his throat as he forced his way forward, fighting against overwhelming terror every bit as much as the surreal swarm of animals. Ben still clung tightly to his back, and Eustus assumed Chunlan was behind Talia: he dared not turn around to make sure.
Reaching the end of the building's wall, Eustus stopped. The rain was so heavy he could barely see the middle of the street. "Which way?"
"It's right there," Talia pointed straight ahead, "across this street!"
Squinting, Eustus was able to make out the faint outline of a large angular shadow through the torrential downpour across the surging river of terrified animals.  "Great," he muttered. Gripping his rifle tighter, he forced some courage into his voice. "Okay, it'll be a walk in the park! Ready?" He looked over his shoulder into Talia's face, which mirrored his own terror, then Chunlan's. The old woman looked calm, almost peaceful. Both nodded. On Eustus's back, Ben whimpered and clung tighter. Eustus took a deep breath. "Here we go..."
Step by shuffling step, he forced his way into the flow of terrified fauna. He fired short bursts from his rifle a few times to create momentary eddies in the current, which allowed him and the others to dart forward a few paces.
After what seemed like a lifetime of horror, they made it to the far side. Slamming up against the wall of the hotel, their hearts pounding like hammers, they took a moment to savor the fact that they were still alive.
Talia screamed, and Eustus whipped around in time to see a neo-Tiger racing down the street. It was gone before he had a chance to fire. Only then did he see that the thing held a man in its maw, and that his mouth was open in a scream that was lost in the pandemonium.
"No," Eustus whispered as he recognized who it was: Calhoun. And if Calhoun had been taken, then Reza must now be gone, too. Lord of All, he prayed, save us. "Come on!" He grabbed Talia, praying that she hadn't seen her father from her lower vantage point. There was nothing he could do to help Calhoun, and he couldn't go back to find Reza, not while he had the children and Chunlan. His only choice was to get them to safety, if he could. Then he would have to time act on his friend's behalf. Or to grieve.
Eustus could see the entrance and began staggering toward it, firing short bursts as he went. They were fighting against the oncoming tide, but didn't have far to go. He stumbled and nearly fell as he reached the raised walkway that lined the front of the hotel, which was submerged beneath a moving mat of small rodent-like animals. Gritting his teeth as he felt some of their tiny bodies being crushed beneath his boots, he mounted the walkway, then pulled Talia and Chunlan up behind him. With one final, desperate surge, they reached the hotel's entry doors.
They were locked.
"Open up, damn you!" Eustus cried as he banged on the sturdy wood double doors. He couldn't hear the muffled response from inside, but didn't have to make out the words to understand that they weren't willingly going to open up. Overtaken by an unfamiliar sense of anger, he pointed the muzzle of his rifle at the lock and fired three rounds, ignoring the frightened cries from within before he kicked in the right side door. Whirling around to make sure Ben was protected from the dangers outside, he ushered Talia and Chunlan inside, before backing in. Once inside, he slammed the door shut and leaned against it as Ben finally climbed down. Eustus knew the boy wasn't heavy, but his own thighs were trembling with exhaustion from the ordeal.
Eustus found himself facing a dozen terrified people, almost all of whom were women in gaudy outfits, and none of whom were armed. "Find something to barricade the door," he told them. They continued to stare at him. "Now!"
Startled into action, they scattered like startled cats. Four of them headed for a well-kept upright piano, which stood against a nearby wall. Grunting and cursing, they pushed it toward the door. At the last minute, Eustus stepped aside and helped them ram it against the door.
"Good," Eustus gasped. "That's good. Let's..."
Before he could finish his thought, a four legged animal not unlike a deer and about the same size exploded through one of the windows of the saloon, even though the windows had been shuttered. The beast, whose sole injury seemed to be a small cut on its nose, stood there, blinking in surprise, amid a sea of shattered glass and splintered wood from the shutters. It tossed its head back and made a sound like a braying donkey.
A heartbeat later another one jumped through the window, followed by five more and a torrent of the small rodent creatures. Another one of the quasi-deer animals came through, nearly twice as large as the others and endowed with a fierce rack of antlers with needle-sharp tips. It glared at the humans and brayed a challenge.
"Upstairs!" Eustus ordered as the saloon began to fill with animals. "Go!"
Chunlan grabbed Talia and Ben by the hand and darted up the elaborately carved stairs faster than Eustus would have credited. The others paused only a moment before following with a chorus of shouts and screams.
The movement enraged the bull, who charged straight at Eustus, head down and antlers aimed right at his chest.
Eustus pulled the trigger on his rifle, and was rewarded with a single shot as the magazine went dry. The pulse round grazed the bull's flank and had no effect on its hurtling charge.
Purely on instinct, Eustus switched his grip on the rifle, holding it by the barrel like a bat. As the bull came into range, he swung with all his might. The butt of the rifle slammed into the beast's antlers, knocking the deadly weapons aside for a single precious moment. Letting go of the rifle, which went flying into the sea of animals now covering the floor, Eustus drew his knife. Lunging toward the bull as the animal swung back toward him, Eustus grabbed it around the neck before plunging his knife into the tender flesh where the neck met the jaw. The animal bleated in pain and thrashed in rage as Eustus desperately clung on. Eustus stabbed it again, and this time was rewarded with a gush of bright red arterial blood. The animal bellowed and tried to wrench away. Eustus let it go, hurling himself to the side. He hissed as a pair of the antler tips raked across his back, then he was rolling on the floor as the bull staggered in the opposite direction, its life blood pouring from its body. Gritting his teeth at the sensation of tiny feet darting over his hands and forearms and tiny mouths nibbling at his skin, he groped along the floor for his weapon. He finally felt it and snatched it up. As he ran for the stairs, ignoring the tiny things underfoot, he hit the release for the magazine and slammed in a new one. Turning around, he fired a brief burst toward the base of the stairs to discourage the larger animals from following.
He found some of the women ogling the scene from the second floor landing. "What are you waiting for?" He shouted. "Get to the roof!"
With obvious reluctance, their eyes drawn by the surreal scene on the first floor, they turned and fled upstairs to the third and final level. He followed them to a back room. Making a final check that he hadn't left anyone behind, he slammed and locked the door. Behind him, a ladder was affixed to the wall and led up to an open hatch in the roof. Rain poured through as the women made their way up.
Slinging his rifle, Eustus followed them, breathing a huge sigh of relief when he found Chunlan and the children, huddled together behind the facade that lined the front of the building, which provided a small bit of protection from the wind, if not the rain.
"Camden!"
He turned and was surprised to find Walker striding up to him. "What the hell are you doing here? Where're the el-tee and the others?"
"I think..." Eustus was at a loss for words. He really had no idea how he'd gotten back to down, other than it was some sort of magic Reza had worked. He decided he'd try to skip over that part and answer what he could. "Lieutenant Ortiz is still deep in the forest, making their way back here. We made contact with a group of Kreelans out there, and another group hit the far side of town." He paused. "I think Captain Yamada and the Marines with him must've bought it."
Walker stepped closer, her dripping nose a finger's breadth from his. "That doesn't explain how you're here. Are you a deserter, Camden?"
"The strange one, the alien in human skin knows powerful magic," Chunlan said. Looking at Eustus, she went on, "He saved this one's life by bringing him to me after being bitten by a great serpent, then went with their father," she glanced at the children, who crouched in misery behind the facade, "to try to repair the sonic fence and save the town."
With a grunt, Walker stepped back...slightly. "Well, I guess that didn't go so well."
Ignoring the barb, Eustus asked, "Where are Stalin and the others?"
Walker pointed into the gray murk. "In the church belfry."
"Why hasn't he done anything?"
Walker laughed. "What would you have us do? If it was just the Kreelans, we'd be in there blasting away. But against this mess?" She leaned over the side of the building at the animals still pouring past. "Give me a break."
Eustus's gaze followed hers, then swept through the rain back to where he thought Reza might be. "I've got to go back down. I've got to find him."
"Negative on that, Marine," Walker told him. "You're staying right here where..."
Her words were lost as the world exploded in a blaze of cyan.
***
In that agonizing moment as he watched Calhoun, his newfound friend, screaming in terror, being borne away by the neo-tiger, Reza stood there, rooted to the ground as the denizens of the forest ran around him in a fear-filled frenzy. He knew he had to help Calhoun, that honor demanded it, but the rational voice in his mind said that Reza could not help him, that he could never catch up to the beast without using his powers, which under these conditions would be nothing less than suicidal, that Calhoun was probably dead already. It told Reza that he could not save everyone. And that perhaps, in the end, he could save no one, not even himself.
In that moment, he felt completely helpless, and the full weight of failure crashed down upon his shoulders in a deathly burden of guilt. He had failed Calhoun and his children. He had failed Eustus and his fellow Marines. He had failed his love, Esah-Zhurah, and the great priestess Tesh-Dar, his mother in spirit, if not in blood. He had failed the Empress. Nicole. Jodi. Wiley Hickock. His parents. It was as if all the things that had ever caused him pain, every sense of loss, were now crushing him at once.
He threw back his head and howled like one of the creatures of the forest, giving vent to his pain and sorrow, weary of the burden that had been thrust upon him by Fate.
It was then that he remembered the last words spoken to him by the Empress before she banished him. She appeared to him in a vision so clear that She could have been standing before him now, Her hands upon his shoulders, just as upon that fateful day. "I beg that you remember this," She had whispered. "You are of My blood, the blood of an Empress. And although you have chosen a Way that will take you to be among our enemies, you do so with honor. And thus shall you forever be remembered in the Books of Time. From this day onward you shall never again feel My love, but know that I do love you, and I pray that glory shall forever follow in your footsteps."
The memory acted as a dam against the flood of painful memories, and a fire ignited deep inside him that began to burn away the sense of failure and replace it with a fierce rage that quickly consumed him. He understood now that, in the process of rejoining the human race and trying to fit in with his genetic kin, it had become too easy to think like a human, albeit one who had unique powers.
But that was not what he was. You are of My blood, the blood of an Empress...and a priest of the Desh-Ka. He had chosen the path of honor to again live among humans, but his blood and soul were forever Kreelan.
Embracing the rage, opening himself to it, he felt the flames roar through his blood. He yearned for the fullness of the Bloodsong, to hear the melodies of Esah-Zhurah, Tesh-Dar, the Empress, and the billions of his sisters, but consoled himself with the knowledge that the great symphony of Her Children played on, even if he was now deaf to it. Time began to slow, the drops of rain and the frantic animals coming to a standstill as the fire within him grew ever hotter, ever brighter. In a moment of crystal clarity, as if he were looking through the second sight of the Empress Herself, he could see everything, knew everything, understood everything. He could have spent an eternity in that infinitesimal fraction of time, but that was not where honor was leading him. Falling away from the stars, he focused on the tableaux around him. He saw Calhoun, noting that he was still alive. The man's heartbeat was strong, his body not badly injured. Eustus and Calhoun's children, along with Walker and two other Marines, on the roof of the hotel. Stalin and the remaining Marines in the church steeple. The surviving civilians. Every animal within leagues of the town. The millions of ravenous amphibians threatening to doom them all.
Gripping his sword tighter, Reza focused the energy within him, feeling like a star about to go nova. Concentrating with all his might, he fought to bend that energy to his will. It was, of course, something that Tesh-Dar had never had time to teach him, and he ignored the voice of reason, the voice of his human side, that told him he was probably about to die.
"In Her name," he whispered to himself, "let it be so."
The power inside of him straining for release, he raised both arms and spread them wide. Lightning danced over his body like a cyan corona before it finally exploded from his hands, momentarily turning the bleak gray into blinding day.
***
Calhoun was beyond terror as the neo-tiger carried him along, held with almost tender gentleness in its massive jaws. He hammered at the thing's head with his left hand, for his right was useless, that shoulder clamped between the thing's teeth. He had tried to grab his knife, but it was beyond his reach on the other side of the ammo vest. Paradoxically, he wasn't in any real pain except for his back: the thing held him in such a way that he was facing nearly straight up, and every bound and turn made him feel like his spine was being twisted. He knew that his reprieve was only temporary: neo-tigers liked their kills fresh, and frequently would haul their prey away, still quite alive, to a protected spot to feast.
As the beast swept around a corner, Calhoun caught sight of Eustus, Chunlan, and the children. "Hey!" Calhoun screamed. "Help me!"
He saw Eustus turn his way and knew that he must have seen him being carried off, but Calhoun also realized there really was nothing the young Marine could do to help him. "Save my children," Calhoun prayed. That was the best he could hope for as the bounding neo-tiger raced past and his children faded into the rain.
The beast had almost reached the west gate when the world suddenly exploded around them. The air was lit by a cascade of lightning, as if from a hundred terrible thunderstorms at once, and much of the rain flashed to steam as the animals surrounding him were instantly incinerated. The only thing that wasn't was the neo-tiger, which was unharmed.
And yet, a moment later he found himself flying through the air, along with chunks of the neo-tiger's head, which had been cut apart with surgical precision. As if in some sort of surreal nightmare, he could see the cross-section of the flesh and bone of the neo-tiger's lower jaw as it flew alongside him, as perfectly defined as if it were part of an anatomy study. The decapitated head - minus the lower jaw, of course - flew in tight formation, as well, and he got a clear look at the cross-section of the neck and its fountaining arteries as the body made a couple more stumbling steps before collapsing into the mud beside the countless steaming corpses of other animals.
Calhoun was still gawking in confused amazement when he hit the ground. Or, more accurately, plowed into the knee-deep water where the ground had begun to slope toward the west gate, which had been torn from its hinges by the preceding animals.
He hit with a splash and went under. The runoff here had become a shallow river, and he fought to gain his footing as the current dragged him along.
A hand gripped him by the upper arm with irresistible strength and hauled him to his feet. Spitting out the water that had forced its way into his mouth, Calhoun found himself facing Reza, who held his sword in his other hand.
"It's about damn time," Calhoun sputtered with a smile. He felt like he was going to burst into tears, he was so relieved. Then he noticed the parade of charred animal corpses streaming by. "I'd really, really like to get the hell out of here." Calhoun felt Reza's grip on his arm tighten.
"So shall it be done," Reza said softly.
He and Reza vanished into the storm.

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