Cannon Fire

CANNON FIRE

BY BENJAMIN

“The areas between seeds remain quite wild. Environmental changes coupled with the bizarre effects of ether on biological organisms have produced flora and fauna that are strange and unknown to the humans who have so recently left the safety of their shields. It is easy to see how superstition could overtake reason in that environment. After all, ether is a new element with properties that challenge many previously established scientific theories of matter and energy. While science struggles with the mysteries of ether, the common person must find his own explanations. Rumors of magic and demons returning to the world circulate even within the seeds. In large part, they are harmless fantasies; however it is the hope of this humble author that people will separate reality from fantasy. We should not lend any credence to this ridiculous fiction that ‘monsters’ were somehow responsible...”

“Condescending moron…” Allison muttered as she read. The article, entitled “The Truth about the Jackson Massacre,” discussed the scientific reasons why there were no such things as monsters. The author argued that the investigation report described something that was at best a hoax and at worst a drug fueled murder-suicide.

“Leave it to some seed-dwelling pseudo scientist to dismiss the evidence” She sighed. Allison was only 16, but she knew more about ether than this man ever would.

Allison glanced back at Banshee, who was sniffing through the wreckage. She wondered what this “humble author” might make of her 5 foot tall ginger colored wolf. Banshee was what the citizens of the wasteland called a hellhound. Her jaws were proportionally larger than that of an ordinary wolf. She could bite a small tree in half without chipping a tooth. Not that it mattered if she did chip a tooth; they always seemed to grow back. If anyone other than Allison was stupid enough to make Banshee angry she would shift. Her eyes would change from white with golden irises to jet black and the iris would glow red; her muscles increased in size which added several inches to her height. The hellhound had one other ability that normal canines lacked: the howl that was Banshee’s namesake. She could shatter glass with only her voice when she wanted to. When Banshee was a puppy she would cry whenever Allison left. It was easier to keep the hound with her than to replace the windows.

Banshee started barking. She tried to move the debris of the fallen aircraft around with her snout. Allison picked up her staff and threw the newspaper back onto the forest floor where she’d found it. Banshee had uncovered a body. It was a man, probably the pilot. He looked to be in his mid-40s, he was wearing a big winter coat that was soaked through with blood.

“No, Banshee, How many times do I have to tell you? We don’t eat the people.” She started to walk off in search of the flight computer, but Banshee resumed her barking. Allison was about to scold her again when the man moaned.

“He’s alive?!”

Banshee barked excitedly.

The man moved onto his side and several blood red crystals spilled from his pocket. Allison’s brown eyes went wide. The stones were ether crystals, ether that had bonded to a mineral producing a material that made an excellent fuel source. The fuel source that Allison’s staff ran on.

The staff looked like something out of a steampunk nightmare. It was a metal tube about 3 inches in diameter and 6 feet in height. The staff’s head was made up of several horns that formed a spherical prison around an enormous cloudy pink crystal. At the bottom were a small biodiesel engine and two fuel tanks. One tank held diesel and the other held ether crystals. From the crystal tank a thick wire flowed into the center of the staff. There were buttons, switches, and dials all along the staff. Located two feet from the bottom was a rubber handle with an old gasoline pump trigger attached beneath it. Another handle lay further up. Together they separated the staff into thirds. Allison found this was the ideal grip for both ranged and melee combat.

The man coughed and blood sprayed from his mouth. He was dying. Allison scooped up his ether and dumped it into the metal container on her staff. She pulled the rip cord and the diesel engine roared into life. The entire staff vibrated and grew hotter as the ether crystals broke down and energy began to flow. Allison’s hands flew across the staff, manipulating the convoluted controls that only its maker understood.

Banshee growled.

“Oh shut up, he’s dying anyway. Besides I’m pretty sure I know what went wrong with that bear.” Allison said, making the final adjustments.

Banshee growled insistently.

“Now you’re just splitting hairs. Human…bear…they’re practically the same thing.”

The staff was configured for the healing spell. She grabbed the handles, tucking the staff under her right arm for stability. Not that she would miss at this range, but sometimes it had a hell of a kick. She pointed her staff at the dying man and squeezed the trigger.

 

Valdez smelled coffee brewing, but wait, that wasn’t right. He wasn’t home. He was flying. No, wait, he was crashing! He shook his head and opened his eyes. He was staring into the face of an enormous hellhound. He shouted and tried to run, but got tangled in the blankets that were covering him. He turned back afraid of what came next, but the hellhound only turned its head to the side then licked him. The beast barked and bounded off into another room. Was it a hellhound? He’d thought so, but the eyes were all wrong and it hadn’t eaten his face. He untangled himself from the blankets and discovered that he was still fully dressed in coat and jeans; though his boots had disappeared and his coat and shirt were covered in dry blood. He immediately checked his torso for wounds. He had none. In fact, it seemed a few old scars were missing.

Glancing around, he observed that he was in a metal prefab housing unit. Most settlements were made up of prefabricated buildings like this one. He noticed that some windows were cracked and others had been replaced with boards. There were wooden bookshelves nailed into the walls. They were overflowing with books and papers. Books were piled in the corners and strewn across the floor. There were massive drawings hung like posters on the wall. Valdez wasn’t an engineer, but they seemed to be schematics for some kind of gun.

He walked from the bedroom into a kitchen/dining area. There were dishes in the sink next to a coffeemaker with half a pot sitting on the burner. There were two doors. Directly ahead was the exit. It occurred to him that it might be best to run through that door find his plane and get the hell out of here.

The thought of his plane jogged his memory. Before he’d gone down, he had just spotted a large column of people walking east. It was odd for so many people to be that far out. Suddenly, his plane went silent. That was impossible, he remembered thinking. There should have been alarms and back-ups. It was as if someone had flipped a switch. All systems had failed at once, including the engines.

The sound of the hellhound’s barking brought him back to the present. It was coming from down a hall. He was reluctant to follow the man-eating monster deeper into the building, but he had to find out what had happened to his plane and why he was covered in blood. Maybe those people he’d seen from the sky lived here. They must have taken him in after his plane crashed.

He followed the sound of barking down the hall. He passed several doors on his way. The doors were covered in dust. It was as if no one had touched them in years. The hall ended with a door to a massive garage. The garage was filled with machinery, computers and what appeared to be an operating table. A girl stood behind the operating table. Goggles covered her face, and massive headphones were over her ears. She was bent over the corpse of a monster. It had horns like a bull, but the rest of the body resembled an ape. The arms were too long. Its chest was barrel shaped and massive. The thing must have been at least 8 feet tall. Stubby legs ended in three-toed feet that hung limp over the table’s edge. The whole body except for the face and chest was covered in thick dark hair

Valdez had been flying the wastelands for two decades; most of that time spent in the Defense Force. Since his discharge five years ago he’d been a supply runner for the outlying settlements. He’d heard all the stories outlanders told about demons or aliens lurking in the lands far west of the seeds. Hell, he’d seen more than a few strange things with his own eyes. He’d dealt with hellhounds, drakes and a dozen other overgrown mutants that could kill a man before he hit the ground. He’d never seen anything like this. Things like this weren’t supposed to exist, especially so close to the seeds. The girl in the goggles didn’t seem to share his concern.

She was humming tunelessly and tapping a rhythm with her boot, oblivious to the monstrous canine barking in front of her. She couldn’t have been more than 14 years old, she was 5 and half feet tall and that was taking into account her boots. She had shoulder length brown hair though she’d dyed some strands an electric blue, while others were fire-red. She wore a blood covered apron over a hooded sweatshirt and brown jacket. After she cut the beast from collarbone to navel she paused to sip coffee from a purple straw that had been twisted into several loops. She noticed the enormous wolf, then saw Valdez standing in the door way.

“HOLY SHIT!” she said far too loudly. She removed the headphones and slid her goggles up to rest on her brow. “Hey man, how are you feeling? Is there any bruising?” She was walking over to him, but paused half way across the room. “Um, you don’t feel explode-y do you?”

“What?” Valdez was growing more confused by the second.

“You know, like you’re going to explode.”

“I don’t…think so? Why would I explode?” his eyes drifted to the monster lying on the slab. “Am I going to explode?”

She shrugged “Probably not. It only took the bear 5 minutes to explode and you’ve been stable for hours.” The hellhound barked. “He just said he wasn’t going to explode. Let it go!” She said exasperated. She looked back at Valdez. “Sorry about that. Banshee doesn’t understand the finer points of the scientific method. Sometimes, you gotta take risks, right?”

Valdez looked down at his bloody coat and back at the body she’d been carving a few moments ago. He was tired and confused. His head was pounding though he couldn’t say if it was from the crash or frustration. “What the fuck is going on here? How did I get here? Who are you? Why do you have a pet hellhound, and what the hell is that thing?” He shook a finger in the direction of the operating table.

 

Allison had been sipping coffee through her favorite straw while the man ranted. He definitely retained his powers of speech. He was walking on his own and didn’t seem to be in pain. There were no outward signs of damage from exposure to ether. She would have to make a note of the configuration she’d used on him. It was definitely a keeper. He was staring at her. Banshee barked.

“Oh, right. Sorry. You caught me in the middle of a dissection. That big guy over there is a demon of some sort. I’ve been cataloguing the various species. I call that one a ‘Taurus Demon’ because of the horns. As for the hellhound, her name is Banshee and she has her uses. Plus, she’s very cute. Aren’t you just so cute” she said the last part in a baby voice as she scratched the hellhound under its chin, which was level with her shoulder.

“I’m Allison. You crashed your plane. I heard it go down and I thought I might be able to salvage the flight computer. I did, in case you were wondering, it’s over there.” She pointed to a pile of wires and screens in the corner of the garage. “Banshee found you in the wreckage and you were all dying and stuff. I thought that this would be a perfect test of the Transmutation Cannon’s healing capabilities.” She eyed him up and down then leaned back against her hellhound. “I’d say it was a resounding success.”

“Look kid where are your parents.” The man said dismissively.

“Dead.” She responded casually.

“OK, well, I’m sorry to hear that but I need to talk to an adult. Do you have any older brothers or sisters or something?” Allison noted with a smile that some of the rudeness had left his tone.

“Also dead.”

“Well who’s in charge here?”

“Moi” Allison said bowing graciously.

“You? You’re just a kid.”

“Hey, I’m 16. I’m not a kid.” Allison said somewhat more defensively than she’d intended.

“Being 16 means you are a kid. Is there anyone other than you in this entire settlement?” he asked desperately.

“Want to take a guess there, champ?” she asked.

“You’re telling me that your entire settlement is dead?” The man’s eyes were wondering back to the operating table.

“Bingo! Oh, hey, you don’t look so good. Want some coffee?” She took another sip through her twisty straw, grabbed her staff that had been leaning by the door and headed for the kitchen. The hellhound followed.

 

Valdez was still trying to process all the things he’d heard when he realized he was alone. The garage was lit only by a small lamp the girl had been using for her dissection and a few glowing screens. He stared at the ‘Taurus Demon’ corpse. Suddenly he very much wanted a cup of coffee, in the kitchen, away from here. He slammed the door shut and locked it, just in case.

He found a cup of strong black coffee waiting for him on the kitchen table. Valdez sat down and took a sip. The girl refilled her own mug and took a seat across from him.

“Who are you anyway?” she asked.

“Christopher Valdez. I thought you said you had my flight computer. All my information was on there.”

“The data was garbage.” She answered with her straw in her mouth.

“That’s impossible; those things are built to survive anything. If I lived it sure as hell should have.”

“Maybe with an electron microscope you could salvage something. I don’t have one, but I should. Banshee, make a note: electron microscope.” The hellhound continued to gnaw on a very large bone.

Valdez decided to change the subject. “So, you’re out here alone?” he asked.

She leaned her put her feet on the table and leaned back. “You catch on quick, guy. Though, it is possible the transmutation scrambled your brains.”

“Transmutation?”

She nodded at the staff leaning near the coffee pot. She spoke excitedly, as if this was the question she was dying to be asked. “I call it the ‘Transmutation Cannon’. It uses a mechanical process to draw raw ether out of etherium crystals and then channels it through a programmable circuit. The circuit can be modified to produce a wide variety of results. Once the circuit is programmed, you squeeze the trigger and the ether will flow along, changing as it goes. The end result is energy that does what you tell it to. I call them ‘spells’. I think it fits. For example, if you tell the energy to become heat and light you have fire or a laser depending on intensity. In your case I told the energy to stimulate your body to heal. It’s pretty bad ass.”

“Ether doesn’t work like that it doesn’t just flow along wires like electricity.” Valdez wasn’t an expert but he considered himself to be a fairly decent mechanic, and these days that meant knowing a little bit about ether. Ether didn’t follow any of the laws of physics. Its charge and mass fluctuated randomly. Sometimes it existed and sometimes it didn’t. Eden spent the better half of a decade to master it, and had been refining it ever since. They had barely scratched the surface and they had the best minds on the planet.

The girl smiled even wider. “It does if you use the right kind of wire.”

“You’re full of shit, kid.”

She got up out of the chair and grabbed the staff. “Wanna bet?”

Valdez followed her and the hellhound outside. The girl had told him she was alone here, but until now he hadn’t really believed it. The settlement was made of a few dozen of the familiar prefabricated buildings though it was clear no one had lived here in years. Thick ivy crawled across the rusted alloy walls of the buildings. Valdez walked through knee high grass as he followed the girl into the town square.

The settlers had constructed a two story stone church in the center of town. It was a common practice; many believed that building a permanent church in a settlement would ensure God’s help against the harsh conditions and dangerous creatures that came with living outside the seeds. If there was a God he certainly didn’t smile on this place. The stone of the church was scorched where the doors had been burned through. Shards of stained glass were strewn amongst the rubble of pews inside. It looked as if someone had armed the village children with sledge hammers and turned them loose inside.

As he looked around he saw that only Allison’s house was remotely habitable. Most were burnt shells. A few had collapsed entirely. He saw claw marks from some huge beast raked across one wall. The village was attacked, then. The girl had mentioned that there were several species of monsters in these parts. The realization that she had been telling the truth wasn’t very comforting.

Allison turned to face him, staff in hand. She put her foot against the fuel tank and pulled the rip cord. The diesel engine roared into life then settled to a loud hum. She turned a few knobs on the staff and flicked a switch. She lowered her goggles over her face and pointed the end of the staff at one of the more dilapidated buildings. She squeezed the trigger. Red lightning began to crackle around the cage of horns. The lightning bolts quickly converged and combined into one beam of energy that erupted from the crystal atop her staff. The recoil knocked Allison clean off her feet and the beam swung wide. It shot diagonally past the building and up into the sky. She let go of the trigger and the staff fell from her hands.

Valdez and Banshee ran to check on her. She moved her goggles back to her forehead and opened her eyes. “That. Was. AWESOME!” she said jumping to her feet. She scooped up her staff. “So?” she asked Valdez.

“How…” He stared at her staff. “What the hell is that thing?”

She pushed a button and the staff’s casing split into two pieces along a hinge revealing the inner workings. It looked like a living creature. Fluid flowed through organic veins beneath a network of muscle fibers. She flipped a switch and the muscles quivered, jerking the veins into new positions. Some ripped free of the sinews they’d been attached to, but were quickly absorbed into others. Valdez sat down and stared at the machine as she clicked the casing back together.

“That thing you were cutting up…”

“Taurus” she answered.

“You’ll take pieces of that Taurus monster and put them into that gun thing?” Valdez wasn’t sure if he should be terrified or impressed.

“Na, haven’t had a chance to analyze it yet. I’m not even sure what kind of effects its body can produce.”

 

It was dark by the time Allison finished the full lecture on the workings of her staff, and they had returned to her kitchen. She seemed happy to have someone to explain her work to. Valdez learned that Allison studied creatures that she believed were fundamentally linked with ether, she called them ‘demons’. They had the ability to manipulate and transform ether into various forms of energy within their bodies. By harvesting and combining the biological mechanisms for energy transformation and running an ether current through them Allison had been able to duplicate the abilities of the demons with her staff.

“But doesn’t it rot?” Valdez asked

“Demon flesh doesn’t rot. Rot is just micro-organisms breaking down organic tissues. Nothing can eat those things. That’s actually part of the reason my teacher named them ‘demons’. Plants take nutrients from the ground and energy from the sun. Animals eat the plants and take their energy. Animals die and return nutrients to the ground. These creatures aren’t part of that cycle. Their life-energy is derived from ether, and ether comes from somewhere else.”

Valdez pointed to Banshee. “Over in Charlestown they pay a $500 bounty for every hellhound corpse you bring them. I promise you, they rot.”

“Hellhounds aren’t true demons. Not yet, anyway.”

“What do you mean ‘not yet’?”

Valdez was coming to recognize a look Allison got when she was about to say something clever. It was a smug self-satisfied smile, as if the knowledge that came so easily to her was beyond the comprehension of mere mortals. “It is rare for ether to bond with organic material. When it does those seed-fools call it ‘ether poisoning’, but that’s not accurate. Poison is something that causes injury or death. That isn’t how ether works. It transmutes things, changes them. Banshee’s ancestors were probably normal wolves that bonded with ether. Each subsequent generation was more susceptible to ether and the physical changes become more dramatic. My teacher theorized that hellhounds and other creatures are in a transitional state. In a few centuries they may well become true demons. It was possible, he argued, that in time everything could change. If there was enough ether in our world then every organic creature might slowly become a demon.”

She looked down at the table. There was sadness in her voice. “That’s why he came here. No one in the seeds would take his theory seriously without proof. So when he heard there was a group of settlers heading into the uncharted west he offered to go along with them. He earned his passage by becoming a teacher for the settlers’ children.”

“You were one of those children?”

She nodded. “My dad was the best mechanic on the coast. My mom was a civil engineer. They both hated seed life. When the Assembly started to resettle the outlands my parents jumped at the chance. My sister was furious. She was in her first year of high school and she didn’t want to abandon her life and her friends to go into the wastelands. I was about 8 years old when we came out here. It was fun for a while. It wasn’t like the seeds at all. People talked out here. Every night the families would get together and just talk. Everyone knew each other and helped each other.”

Valdez figured he knew what came next. Most settlements this far out didn’t succeed. The disease and famine was enough to finish off the majority, but if that didn’t kill you then the beasts just might.

“My teacher turned out to be right. They came in the night. There were hundreds of them, but they never made a sound. Most of us were slaughtered while we slept. Those were the lucky ones. Did you ever hear that humans are more or less immune to ether bonding?”

Valdez nodded. Every child knew that thanks to the Assembly’s information campaign. It used to be believed that anyone who ventured outside a shield became contaminated.

“That’s another thing the seed scientists have wrong. Ether bonds just fine with human tissue, just not living tissue. Eventually the alarm was raised, but by that point one half of the village was fighting the corpses of the other.”

Her voice wasn’t sad anymore. She’d slipped back to her quirky casual tone, but Valdez saw rage in her eyes. “There were all sorts of fun demons there that night. There were some squid-faced things with the torso of a man and the lower body of a snake. Small lizard monkeys that could climb walls. Of course, there were the usual creatures: hellhounds, drakes, chimeras, salamanders. I was helping my dad in the garage when they came. He used to let me stay up late and work with him after my mom had fallen asleep. Dad heard them coming. The car we were working on was up on a lift. He shoved me into the hole and lowered the lift. I watched from under the car for a while. It was morning before the screams stopped. I crawled out from under the car. I found my families bodies and ran outside to get help. Then I found the bodies of the others, well, the ones that hadn’t walked off.”

Allison looked down at the hellhound and smiled. “I found one more thing though, a hellhound pup that had been left behind by the pack. She was too small to keep up, so they just left her there. Banshee and I buried my family and my teacher behind what was left of the church. We burned the rest of the human corpses. The villagers had managed to take a few demons with them. Those I kept, they became the first circuits of the Transmutation Cannon.”

After a few moments Valdez spoke. “You built a gun, so what, you could go out there and kill the demons? You couldn’t even shoot in a straight line this afternoon.”

She got defensive. “It’s more than a gun. What you saw was just a modified configuration. It had a little more oomph than I was expecting.”

“Kid, tomorrow I’m heading back to Trenton and hitching a ride to the seed. You should come with me. It’s a miracle you haven’t already gotten yourself killed out here on your own.” Lightning flashed as Valdez finished speaking and shortly after the thunder had ceased he heard rain pinging against the metal roof. “Fucking hell” That was just his luck. It wouldn’t be easy trekking through a storm. Banshee’s ears perked up. She walked towards the door and started sniffing.

Allison looked over at the door. “What is it, cutie?”

A lightning bolt sliced down through the sky less than a mile away. A sound wave rattled the house. “Jesus…” Allison said. She opened a cabinet that held flashlights, batteries, and a small radio. She set the radio on the counter and turned it on. The emergency channel was static. “That’s not good.” Allison switched stations to the Information Service, more static.

“Maybe it’s broken” Valdez suggested. “Or maybe there’s too much interference from the storm?”

She glared back at him. Allison opened her mouth to reply. The lights flickered. Allison looked around the room. “That’s impossible. The generator is under us. We’re connected to it directly” she said. Banshee started barking. Allison looked out the window towards the edge of the town. “How exactly did your plane crash?”

Valdez opened his mouth to answer, but before he could get a word out the lights died and they were plunged into darkness. The only sound was the rain pounding against the roof. Even Banshee was quiet. Once his eyes adjusted to the dark he got up and looked out the window next to Allison. Lightning struck even closer this time and for a few brief seconds it was bright as day outside. Valdez saw figures emerging from the forest and coming towards the ruined settlement.

The shrill screams of hellhounds pierced the rain and thunder. Banshee answered with her own earsplitting cry.

Allison smiled. “Is that so?”

Kneeling down next to her staff she opened one of the fuel tanks and poured several familiar red crystals in. Valdez’s hand went to his pocket which he found empty. He took a step towards her, but before he could take another Banshee was between them. Allison pulled the ripcord and her staff roared to life. She glanced at a few of her gauges and seemed satisfied then turned to face Valdez.

“Well it seems like they can’t shut everything off. That’s something.” She said.

“You robbed me while I was unconscious? Do you know what those things were worth?!” In a strange way Valdez was grateful for the enormous wolf between them. He was sure he’d feel guilty later about breaking a little girl’s neck.

“Your life” she replied easily. The hellhound pounced. Valdez was trapped under its weight. He saw the enormous jaws open and struggled uselessly to get free. They snapped shut an inch from his nose. Banshee’s slobber dripped on his shirt. Allison was laughing hysterically.

“Alright girl, that’s enough. Oh man, you should have seen your face. You were all: oh no, please don’t eat me!” She burst into another round of laughter when Banshee licked his petrified face and allowed him to sit up.

Allison opened the kitchen door. “Go keep them busy. I’ll be out in a sec.”

Banshee ran out into the darkness and another high pitched scream rattled the walls of Allison’s house. Valdez jumped to his feet. “You’re insane!” he exclaimed.

She seemed to consider that for a moment. “Maybe a little, but I meant what I said. Those crystals saved your life once already.” She pointed to the bloodstain on his coat.

Allison frowned, “Hopefully, the rest of them will save all our lives. An entire village couldn’t fight this off last time.” The lightning flashed. The monsters were in the settlement now. Valdez could make out the dead face of a risen human corpse just before Banshee leapt from behind a building and took its head off in one bite. Allison saw it as well.

“Oh, it seems like some of the villagers are back for round 2. Don’t think they’re on our side though.”

“You think you’re going to fight off an army of zombies and God knows what with a gun that knocked you on your ass a few hours ago?”

“It’s not a gun. You could help if you want. There’s an old ether-tech rifle in the garage by the computers.” She reached under the sink and tossed him a flashlight. “I’ll try to save some for you.” With that she ran out into the night leaving Valdez alone in the dark. He hated to admit it, but he was starting to like the girl. It was too bad that they were both going to die.

He made his way down the hall to the garage door he had locked earlier. He unlocked it and walked through. The beam from his flashlight fell on the medical slab first. The Taurus thing was still there and it was still dead. Valdez walked over to the darkened computer terminals. After a few minutes of searching he’d located the rifle and a few cartridges. It was about 10 years old, but looked to be in usable condition. The smooth white edges of the rifle shone in the light. Allison had taken surprisingly good care of it. The small display screen was cracked but functional and there was an attached scope with adjustable zoom. He set the flashlight down on the desk, loaded the rifle and flipped the safety off. The display showed the settings and remaining energy. He switched it into burst fire mode with a few taps of his finger. It was the same software the Defense Force had used.

Something slammed into Valdez’s back. It knocked him into the desk causing the flashlight to fall. Valdez rolled to the ground, rifle still in hand. He heard a massive creature moving in the shadows. Valdez crawled over to the light and pointed it towards the shuffling sound. He immediately wished he hadn’t. It was the Taurus standing apelike on all fours with its intestines spilling from the incision Allison had made earlier. Valdez could see a trail of gore it had left across the room. The dull lifeless eyes regarded Valdez for a moment before it lowered its horns and charged. Valdez dropped the flashlight and took the rifle in both hands. Blue energy erupted from the gun. It created a strobe-light effect on the room. The gunfire stopped and the room was silent. Valdez smelled ozone and burnt hair. After a moment Valdez grabbed the flashlight. He had gotten lucky. His shot had taken half of the beast’s head clean off. All that remained was a smoldering lower jaw with the tongue lolling out. In zombie movies destroying the brain usually killed them, but Valdez didn’t stick around to find out if it was true. Locking the garage door once more he ran for the kitchen.

The settlement was bright with lightning, fire, and the occasional blast of Allison’s staff. She had changed configurations again it seemed. Valdez watched as she was attacked by five serpentine creatures. The snake-creatures possessed long powerful tails as well as some nasty looking fangs. They circled around her; one lunged only to catch the head of her staff across its face. Her weapon was more durable than it looked. She slammed the end of the staff into the ground and pulled the trigger. The crystal at the head of the staff began to glow bright orange. A circle of fire rose from the ground and exploded outward, incinerating the snakes and another dozen zombies. Banshee, meanwhile, had met up with her old pack. She had torn three of their throats out and was tangled in fight to the death with a fourth. Valdez went into a crouch, aimed down his sights and shot a smoking hole through Banshee’s opponent. The hound barked its thanks and ran to the next enemy.

Valdez spotted a ladder that lead to the roof of Allison’s house. He climbed as quickly as the rain and rifle would allow. Once on the roof he looked through scope at the steady stream of creatures coming through the forest. There seemed to be no end to them. There were more corpses as well as hellhounds, a flock of drakes and a few species he’d have preferred not knowing existed. He picked off the slower moving targets. He saw Allison through the scope. She was covered in mud, blood and ash. Her hair was matted to her head and there was a manic look in her eye. Her hands flew across the staff reconfiguring it in an instant the next time she pulled the trigger the crystal glowed bright white and then flared out. Valdez thought it had failed until he heard a deafening bang accompanied by a blinding flash of light. When his senses came back to him he saw a 50 foot crater between the settlement and the forest. Monsters were no longer coming out. In fact, a few were running back in. If Allison could keep that up they might just win this thing. Those crystals seemed to be worth a lot more than Eden had told him when they sent him out here. He would be sure to have a chat with them about that.

 

That trick had cost Allison 80% of her remaining ether, but it seemed like the gamble had paid off. Blue bolts of energy rained down from the roof onto the few creatures that were bold enough to continue their advance. She stopped to catch her breath and look around. At some point the old bakery had caught fire. When had that happened? The orange light from the flames danced across her face as she searched for the cause. Without warning the building exploded.

Allison didn’t remember hitting the ground. She picked herself up as fiery debris fell around her. Her staff was gone. She must have dropped it. She turned back toward the building. A man was walking towards her through the flames. Another zombie, she had to find her staff. Her eyes darted frantically across the battlefield. She spotted the crystal jutting out from beneath a pile of rubble. Several of the horns that made up the spherical cage had broken off. She burned her hands digging through the super-heated remains of the bakery. The damage to the staff was extensive. Her controls were smashed. Many of the switches and knobs had broken off. There was no way to know what configuration it was in now and what if anything it would do when she squeezed the trigger.

The creature emerged from the smoke and flames and Allison saw it clearly for the first time. It was no zombie. Its movement was too fluid to be one of the bloodless corpses. If it weren’t for the eyes she would have thought it was a human man. The eyes were black pits that seemed to swallow the light. There was something about those eyes or lack thereof. She’d never seen anything so pure black. They reflected none of the light from the fire. She wanted to look away but found herself unable. Someone was screaming her name, but they were so far away.

A wolf howled. It was her wolf. She couldn’t remember its name. She had a wolf, didn’t she? No, no that was silly. A dream she’d had once maybe. Her mother would never let her keep a wolf. She shook her head why couldn’t she remember? When she looked up her father was standing there, amidst the flames and wreckage.

“Allie! Hurry, we have to get out of here. They’re coming.” He shouted.

“Dad!” she dropped her staff and ran to him. It felt like she hadn’t seen him in years. “What’s happening?” she asked.

He took her in her arms. “It’s alright. I’ve got you.”

She buried her face in his chest. There was a flash of blue light and her father jerked back. She looked up and saw her father smiling down at her, but it wasn’t her father. There were black pits where his eyes should have been. Another round of blue light crashed into the thing’s temple and suddenly she was back in the village, the real village. She was locked in the embrace of the thing with a human face. Valdez was screaming her name from the roof as another volley of energy burned the creature. Its grip on her loosened and she managed to free one arm and slammed her fist into its face. It was like punching a boulder she felt her fingers break against its jaw. The monster tilted its head curiously to the side with her fist still lodged in its cheek. An icy hand closed around her wrist and with yanked her arm forward. There was a crunch and a pop as her shoulder dislodged. She could feel the muscles and tendons stretch and begin to rip. She heard screams and it took her a moment to realize they were coming from her. The creature released her and she fell limply to the ground. The pain from the impact was even worse. She tried to crawl forward with her good arm, but the creatures booted foot came down on her mangled shoulder with a sickening crunch causing her to scream even louder than before.

Her vision was blurred by tears and pain, but she thought she saw Banshee sprinting toward her from the edge of the battle. Three of the dead humans still clung to her fur, but Banshee hardly seemed to notice. The monster turned his eyeless gaze to the roof and Valdez and suddenly it was gone. Allison looked at the roof. Valdez was searching the battlefield through his scope. The creature materialized behind him. Without thinking Allison tried to stand. The force of gravity on her mangled arm was enough to cause another wave of blinding pain. Her torn muscles seized and she saw stars. It was too much. All she could do was shout and point with her good arm.

Valdez turned around and managed to pour the rest of his energy pack into the creature. The bolts didn’t even burn its t-shirt. The thing grabbed Valdez by the throat and lifted him clear off the roof. Its free hand curled into a fist. It punched through Valdez’s chest. A blood covered fist exploded from Valdez’s back. Allison watched as his body jerked and twitched. The creature withdrew its blood soaked forearm and threw Valdez’s lifeless body from the roof. Allison felt warm tears stream down her cheek. She gritted her teeth and stood. The weight of her arm threatened to pull her back to the ground, but she refused to acknowledge it. Banshee was only a few meters away.

She pointed to her staff, “Banshee, fetch.”

The hellhound shook the dead men from its fur and grabbed the staff carefully in its jaws. She delivered the staff to Allison. The engine was still turning. That was good; Allison didn’t know if she’d have been able to work the cord with one hand.

The monster jumped from the roof and fell two stories to the ground. It landed gracefully and walked slowly back towards Allison. Banshee charged it. The enormous canine reached the creature in only a few steps. With a flick of its wrist the demon sent Banshee rolling across the settlement. It threw back its head and made a horrible sound that was half nails on a chalk board and half choking. Allison realized that it was laughing.

“You think that’s funny, do you?” She leveled her staff. It was hard to aim with one hand, but she was able to balance the staff in the crook of her arm and grip the trigger. She paused for a moment. Once she pulled that trigger there was no turning back. There wasn’t much ether left, but with a random configuration there was no way to know what the result would be. Absolutely nothing could happen, the world could explode, or anything in between. Even if she did get a useable, offensive spell it probably wouldn’t work. This demon had survived explosions, half a clip from an ether rifle, and thrown a hellhound like a toy.

“Fuck it.” Allison squeezed the trigger. A beam of bright white light shot from the staff’s crystal and hit demon square in the chest. There was no sound, no recoil. For a heartbeat Allison was afraid that her final attack was the world’s most disappointing flashlight, but then she heard the demon scream. If its laugh had been horrible then its scream was absolutely terrifying. The white light shot from the pits that were its eyes. Blood poured from the nose, ears and mouth. The demon fell to its knees and clawed at the ground. Allison kept the beam focused on the creature. It writhed in agony as its skin cracked. The light from the staff began to show through the cracks and the entire form seemed to glow. The wind picked up in response to the demons pain.

Lightning struck randomly all around the settlement. The risen dead began to collapse one by one. The few demons that had maintained the attack fled for the forest. One unlucky Taurus was struck by a bolt and vaporized where he stood.

The cracks in the creature’s skin spread quickly. Eventually the light shined so brightly that Allison had to look away. With one final heart stopping moan the demon burst apart. The shockwave knocked Allison off of her feet.

Allison didn’t remember much after that. When she woke up the sun was shining down and she was still alive. The battle was over, apparently she’d won. Her staff’s diesel engine was dead. She’d pretty much be rebuilding the Transmutation Cannon from scratch. A look around the village told her she would at least have plenty of parts. Sitting up reminded her about her arm. With a little effort and only a moderate amount of screaming she was able to pop her shoulder back into place. The limb was still in bad shape but she wouldn’t be able to attempt a healing spell until she fixed her staff and got her hands on more ether crystals. Valdez had some of the most powerful crystals she’d ever seen. Unfortunately, he never did say where he’d gotten them from. She might even have to go to a hospital. She hated doctors.

Banshee was limping as she sniffed through the wreckage. She nudged a few pieces over with her snout and barked. Allison hobbled over to Valdez’s body. His eyes were still open. She shut them. Sometimes dead people looked like they were just sleeping, but the fist sized hole in his chest kind of ruined the illusion.

It took her the rest of the day, and Banshee did most of the work, but she’d managed to dig a grave for him. He was a hero. She figured he deserved better than burning. She’d known him less than a day, but he’d risked his life to save hers. More than that though; the hoard of demons fell apart with the death of that black eyed thing. If it had won here then the hoard would have continued marching east. The first settlement they’d come across would have probably ended up like hers did all those years ago. Valdez and his crystals saved a lot of people; though she still wasn’t sure what from, or what her spell had actually done to it.

It was getting dark and Banshee was restless. “I know, girl” she said. Allison picked up the remains of her staff with her good arm and headed back into the house with Banshee at her heels. Allison was determined to get to work on duplicating her last configuration. She had a feeling she’d need it again.