The next few moments were snapshots of violence.
Stephanie went down right in the middle of barking an order to the Hollow Horde. She spun as she fell, blood spurting from the side of her head in the wake of another gunshot report. The shots were coming from the direction of the common house, on the other side of the rusted playground from where everyone stood.
Preston Garvey dove for his laser musket, half buried in the snow nearby. Flakes scattered everywhere as he rolled and brought it to bear on a raider. The laser buzzed and reflected red in Garvey's eyes, melting a hole right through his target's middle.
Mama Murphy had a knife in hand, one the shave-headed man had been carrying in his belt. One she must have stolen from him while he escorted her. She had him pulled close by the front of his jacket and was plunging the blade into his neck, again and again until he slumped at her feet.
Sturges pulled a heavy wrench from his utility belt and spun around to brain Leather Jacket with it. She crumpled with a faint cry.
All of this, between one breath and the next. But return fire from the raiders began to sound. Without their leaders to keep them in check, the Hollow Horde would slaughter the Sanctuarians.
From its hiding place in his coat sleeve, Nick dropped the remote turret switch into his waiting hand. "President Garvey!" he bellowed in true parade ground fashion, his voice carrying across the angry roar of battle. "Assume the position!"
Every Sanctuarian hit the deck, lying prone upon the snow. Some threw their arms over their heads.
Before the raiders could react, Nick pressed the switch.
The turret, which Nick had only managed to turn to face the current battleground, unloaded with a drawn-out mechanical shriek. It sprayed its entire drum of rounds in the blink of an eye, spinning so fast that it stripped its barrel, hurling shrapnel and bullets in every direction. Projectiles thudded into the wooden sign at Nick's back and tore into the standing raiders, ripping them to bloody doll rags. Over two thirds of them fell, screaming, but not without some settler casualties unlucky enough to catch a stray shot.
When the turret had done its work, the remaining Sanctuarians got to their feet, facing off against the last of the raiders. Now the field was even.
Unfortunately, Simon Abney had managed to take shelter behind the sign with Nick. By the time Nick's surprise attack was over, he was turning the corner around the adjacent house and vanishing out of sight, making for the common house. Another rifle report rang out from the sniper.
"Shit," Nick whispered. Simon must've realized the sniper could only be Gale. She was about to get flanked.
He took off after Simon, following the same route around the house to avoid the main battle. When he rounded the next corner, Simon was most of the way to the common house. Nick skidded around the turn, slipping in the snow. Drawing his pistol from his shoulder holster, he fired several shots. But the pistol just didn't have that kind of range; between that and running while shooting, every round flew wide of his mark.
"Gale!" Nick yelled, hoping she would hear him or the shots or both. "You've got company!"
Simon ducked in the side door, pistol drawn. Too fast for Nick to see what kind. Nick himself slammed up against the wall next to the door, not keen on hurtling into an ambush. A swift glance inside revealed the main room was empty. Since he'd left, a bucket had appeared next to the couch where he and Gale had sat. Likely a provision for her from Mama Murphy.
A scuffling came from down the hall, followed by Simon's voice, pitched on the verge of unhinged. "Where are you, Vaultie?!" He thundered back toward the main room, footsteps growing louder.
Nick waited until he saw the whites of Simon's eyes before he pulled the trigger. But Simon jerked back into cover just quick enough that the bullet skimmed past his nose.
A pause followed as Nick reloaded, giving Simon a moment to realize he was trapped back there. Each of the bedrooms had windows, but they were all boarded up for the winter. He had no way out.
"Nick Valentine," Simon said, rolling the name in his mouth as if savoring hard candy. Time to hear the negotiations, Nick expected. "Give me the vault dweller and I'll call off the Hollow Horde. Save your stupid settlers and those kids."
The clash of battle was tapering off, but from this angle, Nick couldn't see who was winning. The sniper fire had stopped.
Nick clicked the revolver cylinder shut. "Sure!" he shouted back, tone cheerful. "Just as soon as I dig her up outta the ground. She died from radiation exposure, last night."
Simon mumbled, "What?" And in that moment of surprise, Nick leapt through the door, lining Simon up for the kill.
Simon's pistol wielding hand was rising, but not fast enough. Yet before Nick could squeeze off the shot, a metallic bang rang out and Simon stumbled forward.
Behind him, now in Nick's sights, was Jaycee, holding aloft a heavy, copper-bottomed sauce pan. She'd just hit Simon on the back of the head with it, but her childlike strength was only enough to daze him. Fury blazed in her eyes. "We told you not to come back!" She crashed it down on his head again and he hit his knees.
Now Nick was afraid of hitting her. "Jaycee, get back!"
Startled at his voice, Jaycee leapt away, pressing herself against the hallway wall. Simon swung his pistol up, leveling the barrel at her.
Taking his chances, Nick fired. The bullet hit Simon in the meat of his pistol arm. He screamed and dropped the gun. The tangy scent of gun smoke filled the room.
Down the hall, something slithered from the ceiling. Or rather, a person fell from the gap created by four missing tiles. This was the way up to the sniper's nest, built above the rafters of every house in Sanctuary, in case of attack. Gale landed on her feet and then rolled forward, coming up in a crouch next to Jaycee, like some wasteland angel of death. Skin waxy, eyes shadowed, breathing laborious. She put her 10 mm pistol against Simon's forehead.
She said, "Close your eyes, Jaycee."
Jaycee did not. She seemed to have aged one thousand years, between surviving kidnap and braining that same kidnapper with kitchenware. Gale didn't turn her head to check that the girl had complied. But Nick saw the hatred that twisted Jaycee's small face. She wanted to see Simon die.
Simon raised his injured arm. "Please, no—"
But he had already squandered Gale's mercy once. She didn't hesitate when she pulled the trigger, taking Simon Abney's life.
Nick hustled both Jaycee and Gale out of the house, away from the sight of the corpse. In his previous life as a Boston policeman, he'd witnessed many a shootout and handled the fallout afterward. Jaycee was unquestionably in shock, her face blank. She watched the receding common house over Nick's shoulder as he carried her toward a giant dead oak tree in the middle of the cul-de-sac out front. Even though he hated what had happened to Jaycee, the way it had stolen her youth, Nick was proud of her. Whether she became cold like Gale, or a spitfire like Marcy, or cunning like Mama Murphey, Jaycee would grow into a formidable force in the Commonwealth.
Gale had to pause and crouch next to a snow-laden bush to throw up. Then her nose started bleeding again, like a waterfall. Once she was done heaving, she shifted to a sitting position and pressed Nick's handkerchief against it.
When she didn't get back up to join them at the tree, Nick returned and knelt beside her, snow soaking his knees.
"Nick," Gale gasped. It was all she managed to get out.
"Here," he said, producing the Rad Away from his pocket. "You're gonna be alright."
But in the end, Gale was too dull-eyed and exhausted, and he had to coax the pills down her. When he figured she had enough to keep the radiation sickness at bay a little longer, he hauled her and Jaycee into the house across the street. Even though he didn't know who lived there, he left the two of them on a bed with a pile of blankets. Then he went to see who had won.
By the time Nick arrived at the bridge, the remaining Sanctuarians were throwing the corpses of the Hollow Horde over the wall, onto the river's pebbly shore. A pile of bodies already rose above the level of the wall and someone was pouring something liquid and flammable over it. Jun Long himself set the whole thing alight. The settlers who had died defending their home lay side by side next to the playground, awaiting proper burial. Nick knew some of their faces but was shamefully relieved that he had no personal attachment to any of them.
A stone-faced Preston Garvey directed the work, getting a team ready to check the trees across the river for any more surprises. He was checking his laser musket, preparing to go out with them, when Nick stepped up beside him.
Without preamble, Garvey said, "You think I'm an idiot." His gaze flicked toward Sturges, leading a team of grave diggers toward the fallen. It would be hard digging in the frozen ground.
Nick wasn't sure why his opinion mattered to Garvey. "You did your best in a bad situation," he drawled. "That's all anyone can ask of you."
Shaking his head, Garvey said, "Gale should demote me. I'm compromised."
"So?" said Nick with a snort. "Anyone who took your place would have weaknesses, too."
Garvey's mouth pressed into an unconvinced line, but he nodded.
Nick set off for the common house, saying over his shoulder, "You're still the best man for the job, weakness or no weakness."
Garvey didn't respond, instead mustering his team to move out. No time to let doubt linger for long. They had work to do.
Nick personally saw to the task of dragging Simon Abney's corpse down to the pyre, the body leaving a long drag mark in the snow. Daylight had begun to fade, and the scent of cooking meat drifted on the breeze. A handful of flakes drifted down when he tossed the body into the fire, melting with a sizzle against the crackling heat. Flames licked at Simon's cheeks. Feeling a little superstitious, Nick stayed until the end, watching as his skin charred, eventually obscuring the black traitor's mark altogether.