Felicity had never killed anyone before.
She had killed animals. There was precious little to do while traveling with a caravan, and hunting was a common pastime. Admittedly much of the thrill was lost when you could remove a rabbit’s heart with a glance, but it had been a way to supplement their diet with fresh meat. And she had prepared for the possibility that it would be necessary to do the same to a human. In Crater a few years back, scavengers had hauled back the husks of slain Empty they’d run into, indistinguishable from humans once they were brought down. She and Felix had spent long hours dissecting the corpses, learning their anatomy until it was burned into their minds, knowledge that could be called up in an instant. It hadn’t really been necessary for Felix to do it, but he’d known how much she hated the task. Even then, she hadn’t liked the implications of what she was learning.
She glanced at the bodies by Hobble’s entrance as she passed. Each of them had a large caved-in section in their chest where their heart had suddenly disappeared. A few of the security guards, people she had grown up with, were giving her nervous looks out of the corner of their eye. They had probably never considered how quick and easy it was for her to murder someone. No one said anything, and after a cursory search of the bodies Carver told them to keep moving.
She glanced at the old man who had so quickly formed and taken command of their little strike team. He knew what he was doing, which was apparently enough for everyone else, including her, to follow his lead. Felicity still wasn’t sure why she’d spoken up when he had laid out the plan of attack. He’d been laying out the risks of their attack and she’d found herself speaking. A few short words, and six people had died at her hands.
There was little time to reflect on her actions. Carver motioned for them to move further into town, where more bandits could be waiting around every corner. Everyone was armed except for Felicity, who had little need for weapons anyway. In the absence of any other information to go on, they opted to move through town toward the fields where the fire was, searching for any residents along the way. Fifteen tense minutes of silence passed before sounds of an argument floated through the deserted streets from a few blocks away.
The strike team crept up to the source of the voices, which were more than loud enough to cover their movements. They found another patrol of six bandits, all bickering and oblivious to their presence until they had nearly a dozen guns trained directly on them. Outnumbered and taken by surprise, five of the bandits surrendered immediately. The sixth tried to go for his weapon, and was riddled with holes before he even touched the grip. Droplets of blood covered the horrified faces of his companions. A few of the strike team members had similar looks. Felicity wasn’t the only one unused to taking human lives.
Carver, unburdened by such misgivings, wasted no time questioning the captives in a brutally simple fashion.
“What are you doing in Hobble?” he asked the first bandit in line, laying the barrel of his gun against the side of his head.
For a few moments the young man remained quiet, his companions staring in horror.
“You have five seconds,” Carver said in a flat voice, utterly devoid of emotion. “Five…four…three—”
He cracked. “Someone hired us! Just get that thing away from me. They hired everyone they could find outside a settlement. We’re supposed to round up everyone in Hobble. Not kill ‘em! We’re just supposed to get them all in one place. I don’t know what’s gonna happen after that.”
“Who’s they?” Carver asked, his tone unchanged. “Why do they want them?”
The young man glanced at his companions, who glared back toward him. His shoulders slumped and the fight seemed to go out of him as he eyed Carver’s gun.
“It was Crater. Some guy from Crater said if we do it, everyone gets a place there. I don’t know why.”
A susurration spread through the security team as they shuffled around and exchanged perplexed looks. Felicity felt the same way. It didn’t make any sense that anyone from Crater would order an attack on Hobble, but if the kid—he was probably only a few years younger than Felicity, but it was hard to think of him any other way—was lying he had to be the best actor alive.
The old man shot a glance backward to quell any movement before returning his attention to the captive. He shifted his line of questioning from the bandits’ motives to pursue information about their location and number. One of the other captives started to say something when the talkative young man spoke, but a vicious hit by Carver with his pistol grip was enough to silence any further disturbances. Felicity felt uncomfortable with how the interrogation was proceeding, but didn’t say anything. According to their informant, there were only about thirty or forty attackers, few of whom had known each other before they were contacted by the person who’d hired them. The plan was to set a fire in the fields to draw out the majority of the residents, with a few groups patrolling the town and the surrounding roads to grab any stragglers they missed. It was a neat strategy, and allowed the bandits to round up most of the larger population of Hobble without issue due to their superior firepower.
“There’s another question for you,” Carver said, crouching down next to the young man who’d done all the talking. He still held his gun, but wasn’t pointing it toward the kid. After his initial resistance, the boy had proven more than amiable to answering any question they asked. “Where’d all the hardware come from? Seems like you’re all armed, forty guns aren’t easy to come by these days.”
Crater had a good supply of guns after years of scavenging and careful care of the weapons, but beyond their borders they were much rarer. Felicity doubted Hobble had more than ten firearms in the whole settlement, and they had been around for a long time.
“He gave them to us. The guy that gave us the job,” the kid said. “That was the only thing that convinced a lot of us that he was really from Crater. Everyone knows they hoard guns like no one else.”
Carver nodded. Finished with his questions, he stepped away from the kid. The security team huddled around him with one guard still training his weapon on the prisoners. The old man kept his voice low as he spoke.
“Before we talk about anything else, way I see it we got two options. We got nothing to tie them with, nothing to keep them in one place right now. I’m not leaving them here to give them the chance to sneak up behind us later, so either we leave someone here to watch them, or we put a bullet in every one of them here and now.”
Even before he was finished speaking, his daughter Angela was shaking her head. Felicity didn’t know her that well, but felt a rush of gratitude toward her.
“We’re not killing them, Dad. They surrendered and they’re not armed.”
Her father shrugged. “Don’t see how that makes one bit of difference, but it’s your call. Rest of you feel the same way?”
There were a few hesitant nods. A couple of them might have had an inclination in the other direction, but no one spoke up. Felicity felt relieved. It was different, and she wasn’t sure what she would have done if the decision had gone the other way.
“All right then. Pick out who’s staying behind and let’s keep moving.”
It turned out that more than a few people wanted to “volunteer” for the job that took them out of the line of fire. Crater’s security might have been better trained than the bandits attacking Hobble, but taking on a force that outnumbered them three to one or more was still a dangerous task. Under Carver’s withering glare, they withdrew their names one by one until a woman Felicity didn’t know was finally chosen for the job. She guided the captives off to a more defensible position at gunpoint.
Felicity considered volunteering herself, but her talents would be of more use with the rest of the security team. As much as the idea of engaging in a firefight with the bandits turned her stomach in knots, the security team would have a better chance if she was there. Wasn’t that the reason she had come in the first place?
Carver had them move out quickly after that, irritated at the delay. They resumed their quiet march through town toward the crop fields behind the settlement. The smoke in the air was gradually thickening, forcing Felicity to swallow a cough every few seconds from her irritated throat. She wished they could stop for some water..
After their encounter, the strike team’s nerves were wound even tighter while they maneuvered through the streets of the settlement. Everyone except Felicity had their guns out, their eyes scanning their surroundings for signs of enemies. The smallest sound triggered an immediate search for its source, and they stayed as quiet as possible themselves to avoid alerting the bandits. At least until one of the security guards at the back spoke up and caused half a dozen of their group to twitch in his direction.
“Can someone tell me why we’re still fighting?”
Towards the front, Carver stopped where he was and turned toward the older man—- not much younger than the roamer himself—and looked at him incredulously.
“You want to repeat that a little louder?” he hissed in an acidic tone.
The offending guard shrugged. “I didn’t say anything when we thought they were killing everyone here, but they’re just rounding them up. You want us to go out there and get killed when we don’t even know why they’re attacking?” No one else spoke, but Felicity saw a few uncertain expressions. Most of the group weren’t rejecting him outright, anyway.
Carver sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “What’s your name?”
“Simmons,” the man replied. He had an enormous white moustache that hid almost his entire mouth. It was difficult to discern his expression, but he met Carver’s angry gaze steadily.
“Simmons, this is probably the worst time I could conceive of to do this, but what the hell. You are everything wrong with Crater. Reluctant to take the smallest risk, unwilling to stick your neck out for anyone outside of your tribe—excuse me, settlement. Exactly what do you think is going to happen to these people once they’re captured? You think they burned their fields and they’re going to send them off with a wave and a smile? If you can walk away from this after knowing what’s happening and still sleep at night, then fuck you. I don’t want you watching my back anyway. Do any of you have to stones to get into a fight you don’t have a personal stake in, or am I going to have to go out there on my own?”
After a silent discussion that was conveyed mostly through exchanged expressions, about half of the guards moved over by Simmons. The rest, including Felicity and Angela, stayed with Carver. Felicity was a little surprised though, she had expected more to want to leave. Carver hadn’t been wrong to say that it was typical of Crater’s residents to stay out of situations that didn’t explicitly involve them. She herself didn’t leave for the same reason she hadn’t tried to stay back with the prisoners: something inside her wouldn’t let others fight a battle while she stayed safe on the sidelines.
“Fine, then,” Carver said. He turned away.
“How about this,” Angela spoke up suddenly. “If you won’t fight for strangers, what about for everyone who’s still going? I’ve known most of you for years, and I know it’s the same for everyone else. Are you gonna watch while we walk into danger without backup?”
Now the group around Simmons looked a little more hesitant, and even the man himself deflated a little. “That’s asking a lot, Ang. None of us have a personal stake in this. Why don’t we all head back—”
“Not gonna happen, Sim. I know I can’t sit back and let this happen. I’m guessing everyone else over here feels the same way.”
“Let them go, Ang,” Carver said, shooting a contemptuous glance towards Simmons. “We don’t need ‘em.”
“Stop being so goddamn stubborn, Dad. You want to take on thirty of them—or more—with six people? You like those odds?” She got right up into Carver’s face, ignoring his scowl. Felicity was glad someone was doing it. Something about his temperament had prevented her from going against the old man herself.
Whether Simmons and his faction would have agreed to go, they never knew, because before he could speak loud footsteps became audible echoing through the street. Their argument forgotten, the entire team raised their weapons toward the noise, several of them breaking off to move to a flanking position.
The source of the noise appeared quickly, but it wasn’t another group of bandits.
Four of the traders from the caravan, including Ella, were running down the street, abruptly halting when they turned the corner and saw the strike team.
“Thank God we found you,” Ella said, panting. “A patrol found the caravan. They took everyone. We managed to get away, I don’t know where they are now.”
Angela glanced over at Simmons. “Enough of a personal stake, you think?”
It didn’t take long for Simmons and his people to agree to continue with the raid. It might have been possible to find the caravan somewhere in the town, but there was no guarantee they would get to them before their group was brought to the fields where they were holding the rest of Hobble. Eventually the entire team was moving again, with the four traders in the center of the formation, armed with the guns taken from the bandit patrol. Felicity felt nervous, but kept her thoughts positive. Outnumbered they might be, but between the element of surprise and the superior training of Crater’s security personnel, she was confident that they could handle the ragtag bandit group. She reassured herself with the thought that Carver had yet to display anything but the utmost confidence.
The team came to a halt when they reached a large supermarket sprawled across a sizeable parking lot. Behind it, urban development gave way to fields of crops, spread out far into the distance. A flickering glow below coupled with the dark smoke rising from that direction gave away the presence of the fire they’d seen from the hilltop. There was no sign yet of any activity from the bandits, but they were likely operating further in. Felicity wondered how they were keeping control of the fire.
After Carver laid out the plan of their attack, the strike team separated into several groups. The traders were given the option to stay back, but every one of them elected to join the attack. Felicity was put with Carver and three others she didn’t know. They had the most dangerous job, but Felicity’s ability was essential for their task. Everyone else left first, staying low and moving further into the field. While they waited for the other groups to get into position, several gunshots rang out from back in town. Felicity looked back, but there was nothing visible and it was too late to see what was happening. Once a few more minutes had passed, the five of them marched out much more obviously than the others had.
The bandits’ location was the first part of the plan that went wrong. They were set up much closer to town than their captive had told them, their movements hidden by the shifting smoke surrounding the valley. Carver cursed when he saw them, halting their trudge through the field of low-growing crops with a raised hand.
“Plan hasn’t changed,” he said in a low voice. “There’s a good chance the others will have seen them too. If they didn’t, this’ll get a bit dicier. Look as confident as you can. Felicity, you’re gonna have to drop them as fast as you can.”
The girl nodded, her heart thumping in her chest. It was one thing to march into a camp swarming with armed enemies, but now she wasn’t even sure if they had any backup. There was a real chance they could all die in the next five minutes. And she had volunteered herself for this!
Before she could conjure up any further doubts, she strode forward, trying her best to walk as though she had no worries in the world. Dust from the field mixed with the acrid smoke in her mouth, creating a bitter taste that nearly made her gag. As they neared the source of the soot it grew thicker, making it difficult to open her eyes without tearing up. Felicity wasn’t confident she was projecting the aura that Carver wanted, but it was the best she could do under the circumstances.
Even closer to the bandits’ camp, it was clear that they were already in some disarray. People were running back and forth, bellowing orders that Felicity couldn’t make out. The glow of the fire swallowed the background of the landscape, and the crackle was audible even through the chaos of the camp. The flames were much closer than Felicity felt was safe for any kind of base; something had clearly gone wrong for the bandits.
They were practically on top of them before anyone even took notice of their presence. Several held buckets of water while they ran, making Felicity suspicious that they had lost control of the conflagration.
Still, one of them eventually took notice of the armed strangers strolling into their camp. “Hey! Who the fuck are you?”
“Where are your prisoners?” Carver asked in a commanding voice. His tone was one of absolute authority, and he gave no indication that he was demanding answers from a group of armed enemies.
“I said, who the fuck are you?” the bandit yelled, unholstering a pistol. Several others turned at his loud voice, bringing up their own weapons toward the interlopers.
Carver glanced at Felicity who took that as her signal. She closed her eyes, visualizing the heart that beat at the center of their questioner’s chest. Blood flowed through the chambers as they expanded and contracted, growing and shrinking in an unending cycle that kept him alive only so long as the fragile sequence was maintained without interruption. She solidified the mental image, adding detail until it was as clear as if he had opened his chest for her to look inside. The fluid of her image was moving too fast, was too intangible for her to grasp, but the heart itself… it started in what she thought of as the deepest fibers, near the center of the septum that separated the two halves of the heart. She saw the tissue fold in on itself into nothing, and felt a resonance within her own body that she could neither control nor prevent. It took perhaps five seconds. Once it was done, the man writhed upon the ground, clutching at his ruined chest for an organ that was no longer there. Felicity forced herself to look, to see the results of what she had done to yet another human being.
But she looked for a moment too long. The other bandits yelled at each other upon seeing their fallen comrade, calling reinforcements and brandishing their weapons uncertainly toward the intruders.
“Stop!” Carver yelled. “We could do this to all of you in a moment! Lay your weapons down!” Watching the bandits carefully, he turned to Felicity, barely moving his lips. “Hurry up. One won’t be enough.”
Startled out her reverie, Felicity hurried to comply. She ended the lives of two more men and one woman over the next half-minute. They collapsed one after another, with no time for more than a single scream. An uncomfortable fuzzing that signalled the unmaking of her own blood cells deep within her body.
The rest of the bandits stopped in their tracks at the sight of their fellows’ fates. Unmaking was not a common ability, and Felicity could only hope that none of them had encountered it before. They were much less likely to be cowed into submission if they knew the limits of what she could do.
Fortunately, none of them seemed to realize what they were seeing. They reacted with alarm and panic, exactly as Carver had predicted. The disorganization of the camp helped as well; rather than the group of twenty that they had expected to intercept them, there were only ten or twelve bandits that were focused on the strike team. The rest were still trying to do something with the fire.
“What the fuck is this?” Someone yelled. “Are you doing this? What’d you do to them?”
“Shut up,” Carver roared. “Take us to the prisoners now!”
One of them was brave enough to raise his weapon in defiance, staring at them across the camp. A shot rang out and Felicity flinched, knowing she didn’t have time to take him down. But when she looked, he was on the ground anyway, screaming and holding his leg. Felicity’s heart rose as she looked to the side and saw four or five figures laying among the planted crops. At least one of the other teams had managed to find the right position.
This sign of an entirely new group of attackers was too much for the bandits. Several of them held up their hands, while others threw their weapons on the ground. The other three security people with Felicity and Carver kept their weapons trained as he walked over to the nearest person, a woman who had thrown her gun down more out of disgust than fear.
“I’ll ask one more time,” he growled. “Where are Hobble’s people?”
The woman sneered. “All around, are you blind?” She gestured wildly at all the people running around the camp. Many of them were marching back and forth to the fire, carrying shovels or water. Now that she took a closer look, Felicity thought there were quite a few more of them than the number of bandits they’d been told about. For the first time Carver seemed speechless.
“You released them,” he said slowly, “to help fight the fire that you started?”
The woman shrugged insolently. “It was either that or burn. We ain’t leavin’ till we get our payment.”
Carver closed his eyes and rubbed his temples, absently kicking the woman’s gun away as he did so. “You might take the prize for the stupidest bunch of assholes I ever met. You think none of your people might get pushed into the fire when no one’s looking?”
A vicious smile suddenly crossed the woman’s face. “I ain’t worried about that much. Y’see—”
Her words were cut off as she spun around in a spray of blood while yet another gunshot rang out.
“You shot me, you stupid bastards!” she screamed, clutching her shoulder in agony. “What the fuck?”
Carver had already ducked low to the ground, looking out toward the direction of the fire with his gun held up. After a few moments of her ears ringing, Felicity realized he’d identified the direction the shot had come from. It wasn’t anywhere their people were supposed to be.
More shots echoed all around as everyone—bandits, residents, and caravaners—ducked away from the imprecise gunfire. Felicity thought the group covering them from outside the camp might have been firing back, but it was impossible to tell if they were having any success. She couldn’t even see who was attacking them.
An odd rhythm of thumps vibrated through the dirt where she laid prone. A series of five or six thuds rattled in quick succession, followed by a few seconds of silence. Then the tremor started again, gradually strengthening as the cycle repeated itself. At first Felicity paid it little attention, instead focusing on the sporadic gunshots that still rang through the camp. She didn’t see anyone who had been hit after the initial woman, a testament to the poor aim of the attackers. As the vibrations grew more pronounced, she crawled over to Carver through the dirt.
By the time she got to him the tremors were actually audible, quick thumps that came from the same direction as the gunshots. Carver’s face was white—for the first time, he looked concerned. He ignored Felicity as he rose to one knee, staying low as he peered in the direction of the fire.
“Fuck.” That one word had more worry in it than he’d displayed in the entire battle up to that point. He sprang to his feet, heedless of the shots, and started running back the way they came.
“Cryptsil coming! MOVE!”
Felicity was confused, but anything that worried Carver that much was worth taking seriously. She followed, glancing back long enough to get a look at a single figure framed by the glow of the encroaching fire. From a distance, it didn’t appear any different from an ordinary person. But it was moving in an odd pattern that matched the rhythm of the vibrations, sprinting for a few seconds before pausing in place for an equal amount of time. The other pair of guards also followed Carver’s lead and retreated back toward town. The bandits stayed where they were, apparently unworried. Felicity couldn’t see any more than that while she focused on her own flight.
The four of them were running full tilt behind Carver, back in the direction of the supermarket. Every so often Felicity glanced behind her, alarmed to see the figure chasing them—and keeping up, despite stopping every few seconds. It was fast enough while in motion that they still couldn’t outpace it. Worse, it didn’t seem to get tired. Carver’s age started to show after a minute of a full sprint as he began to lose ground. Not that the rest of their group was doing much better—running through the dirt and plants was tiring, and they wouldn’t be able to make it much further.
One of the guards paused to take a shot while they ran. The bullet must have gone wide because the figure chasing them didn’t so much as miss a step. The guard turned to run again, but tripped over one of the low-growing plants and sprawled in the dirt. Everyone else was too far ahead to help him up, but it still looked like he had enough of a lead to scramble up and get away from the thing chasing them. Until it paused for a few beats longer than its standard rhythm and leapt twenty feet to slam down on the guard. Felicity kept going without looking back, but the blood pounding in her ears couldn’t drown out the crunching noise it made.
They managed to make it back across the field to the parking lot with the supermarket, but Felicity was exhausted. She doubted the others were in much better shape, and the cryptsil was still after them.
“Inside,” Carver panted. He didn’t look like he was about to collapse, but a half-mile sprint wasn’t easy on anyone. The old man gestured to the large building without slowing down. One of the guards threw open a door on the back, pushing Felicity and the others inside. She risked a glance back to see that they’d gained some ground on the cryptsil, but it was close enough for her to get her first good look at the thing.
At a glance, it could have been mistaken for a person in a painted suit of armor. It was the right size and shape for a bulky human, and its “skin” had a metallic sheen, but there were no gaps or folds in its form. Its body was smooth and completely black but for the flecks of blood around its feet and legs. Its face was featureless—it had neither eyes, nor a nose, nor a mouth. It was as if a black mask was covering it, but it didn’t seem to have any difficulty maneuvering around its surroundings. Whatever it was made of, it was heavy. The deep imprints left by its steps and the effortless way it crushed the guard were enough evidence of that. It had taken an even longer pause after its gruesome jump, but it was on the move again and catching up fast.
Felicity stepped inside the building just as the last guard in their group closed the door behind her. She looked around the large, dark building. The only light came from windows high near the ceiling, and while it was enough to see by, the entire place was still very dim. Carver motioned for them to move deeper in the building without speaking. The pounding footsteps were still audible, returned to their normal rhythm after the earlier interruption. They moved between the high rows that had once held incalculable amounts of food, now converted into storage shelves. There were textiles, tools, cords of wood—everything the people of Hobble owned was probably stored within these walls.
“Its skin is like metal,” Carver said once he’d regained his breath. “Bullets might get through, but you’d have to hit it in the same place more than once. It can punch strong enough to get through a stone wall, but it’ll deform its body if it does. The smallest crack in its armor and it’ll die.”
“So what do we do?” one of the guards asked, sounding panicked.
“Shoot it as much as you can. And pray,” Carver responded shortly. “Felicity, you have to make a hole. Deep as you can, at least ten feet. Keep a thin layer on top so it looks normal.”
“I-I’ll try,” she said. That much mass would be the most she’d unmade since she and Felix made the furrows in the dam, and they’d been laid up for weeks after that trying to recover. But their situation was desperate. “It has to be outside though. There’s too many variables with the foundation of buildings.”
“Fine. Stay near the door. Roland, go with her. Find us as soon as you’re done.”
The last guard nodded, his face pale. At some point while they’d talked, the character of the footsteps had changed. Instead of the muted thump of feet on dirt, an echoing crack sounded every few seconds. The cryptsil was inside the building with them.
Felicity and her escort hurried toward the front entrance of the building while Carver and his companion—who looked like his hands might be shaking too badly to fire his gun— turned back in the direction of the monster. She heard Carver mutter as they left.
“Turning is hard for it. Takes it almost an entire cycle to do a one-eighty, buys us time. Get around the sides as much as you can.”
Gunshots started echoing soon after, usually in the dead space between the cryptsil’s footsteps. Felicity hoped the two of them could use the cover of the shelves to stay out of the monster’s way. She and Roland made it to the front door out into the lot as quickly as they could. The guard posted up near the threshold, looking inward while Felicity started on her task.
It was slow going, but luckily the soil’s composition wasn’t too far from Crater’s. She felt the telltale loss of blood cells in her own body, even as there was no appreciable difference on the surface. Without the concrete topping of the parking lot, there was no way she could have left a layer on top as Carver had asked, but with it there the only issue would be making the hole too wide so it caved in.
She forced herself to ignore the gunfire and pounding and yelling coming from inside the building. The dirt beneath the concrete was the only thing that mattered. She closed her eyes and painted a picture of the soil within her mind. Everything else ceased. She reached deep, guessing intuitively where each layer began and ended. Soil composition had been another subject of study for her and Felix in their efforts to expand their repertoire of unmaking. Rocks and clay and decomposed organisms all mixed together in different amounts, and Felicity could see them well enough to unmake it all.
Finally, her task was done. The hole was as deep as she could make it before it reached a layer that she didn’t understand. She felt drained in a way that usually didn’t hit her until well after her unmaking. Between the exhausting run earlier and the sudden loss of a good portion of her oxygen-carrying blood cells, her actions carried a heavy cost.
But at the moment that wasn’t important. She looked over at her guard—Roland, Carver had called him—and nodded.
“It’s as good as I can make it,” she said.
“Alright,” he replied. “Mark where it is and let’s go.” They marked where the spot was with a chunk of nearby rock. The concrete cover seemed sturdy enough, though she had little doubt it would collapse under the weight of the cryptsil.
The pair went back inside, moving cautiously toward the source of the noises that still rang out. They caught sight of the other guard first, his back to the wall of one of the shelves. The moment the pounding ceased, he turned the corner into a row they couldn’t see, firing three times before leaping away in their direction. More shots rang out simultaneously from the other direction. Felicity was impressed by the guard’s bravery in exposing himself to the cryptsil. She’d underestimated him.
Unfortunately, his actions caught the attention of the creature. Rather than chasing him, it used its explosive power to slam into the shelf, knocking it and everything it held to the ground. This particular shelf was used to store tools. Large hammers, pickaxes, saws, and other heavy objects rained down. The guard barely escaped getting brained by a sledgehammer as he ran toward Felicity and Roland.
“Thank God,” he said. I don’t know how much longer we can keep this up. It’s smart, starting to change how it pauses so we don’t know how long of a window we have.”
His words were punctuated by a crash as the thing slammed down in another aisle, breaking the tiles from the sound. Carver caught sight of them but didn’t slow down as he ran their direction.
“Move!” he yelled. A large pickaxe was slotted between two straps of his pack that bounced around as he ran. The four bolted back the way they’d come, Carver and his companion noticeably slower than the other two. They’d had little time to regain their breath. Behind them, the rhythmic footsteps started up again as the cryptsil honed in their position. It didn’t have any trouble discerning the direction they’d gone, dashing a faint hope Felicity had held. Even so, the four of them managed to burst out of the supermarket into the sunlight, narrowly avoiding the hole as Felicity pointed at its location.
Another group had arrived during their absence. Everyone they’d been told had been taken captive was in the parking lot, frowning toward the noise echoing from the supermarket.
“Get away! Run!” Felicity yelled, frantically gesturing for them to escape. Most got the message, especially when the cryptsil emerged from the building, ripping a door off its hinges on the way out. A few stuck around behind her, but she had no more time to focus on anything but the creature. Its body was now riddled with dents across the chest and face, but none of it seemed to slow the thing down. It continued its inexorable march, falling back into its familiar pattern of movement and stillness. Felicity held her breath as it closed in on them, hoping it would walk right over the hollowed concrete, but the cryptsil stopped while still a good distance away. It froze for longer than normal, indistinguishable from a metal statue.
“It’s gonna jump,” Carver yelled. “Back up now!”
They hastened to follow the order, but contrary to his own statement, Carver ran up right next to the rock that marked where the hole was. Felicity gasped, but the material held. In the next second, the cryptsil acted as Carver had predicted and launched itself forward as it had before. It went for the nearest target, aiming to crush Carver under its heel. The old man tried to jump out of the way, but after all the exertion his reflexes were just a fraction too slow. The cryptsil stomped down on his foot even as the ground collapsed underneath him, dropping him down in the hole. The old man had managed to get most of his body out of the way and crawled back from the hole, leaving his pack where it was, while the other two stepped over him and fired their weapons down into the pit.
Felicity moved to help Carver, dragging him farther away. His foot was a mangled mess; it made her stomach turn just to glance toward it. The old man’s teeth were gritted, and he grunted every time Felicity had to pull him.
Finally, the two guards’ magazines were emptied. There was no sound from the hole, and Felicity dared to hope that they had finally punched through the cryptsil’s armor. Ten seconds passed in silence, then twenty. Just as Felicity opened her mouth to speak, a dark shaped flew out of the pit. Roland and the other one had backed up far enough that they weren’t touched, but the creature looked no more than inconvenienced by the heavy dents on the top of its head. It landed in a crouched position and froze again. No one moved; to Felicity, the entire scene appeared suspended in a tableau of horror.
The stillness was broken when someone bolted toward the creature from behind her. She saw Tony duck down to take the pickaxe that had fallen with Carver’s pack, ripping it out of the loop that held it. He charged up to the creature and smashed the sharp point into its head, aiming for the center of the dents caused by the hail of bullets. It bounced off without punching through. Undeterred, he swung down on it a second time, bringing all the power he could bear. A crater formed on the crown of the cryptsil’s head, but it was still whole. On the third swing, the creature started moving again. Its hand shot out toward Tony, but the pickaxe was already coming down. It started rising to its feet at the same time, meeting the axe as it arced down. This time, the battered material that made up the cryptsil’s armor couldn’t maintain its integrity any longer. The pickaxe punched through, making a small gap on the top of its head.
The thing went berserk, leaping ten feet in the air the same instant the hole was made. The pickaxe was ripped out of Tony’s arm, and the hand that had reached for him caught him under the chin, sending him sprawling to the ground. He was still conscious though, and scrambled back as far from the cryptsil as he could. It didn’t seem to have any further interest in him, however; when it landed it moved in no particular direction, running and jumping at random. There was no longer any pattern of motion and stillness—it only moved, and faster than Felicity would have believed possible. They gave it wide berth, watching the erratic movements of the creature gradually slow until finally it came to a halt and moved no more.
Felicity let out a breath and collapsed on the ground next to Carver.