Coraline's mind initially refused to process what had just happened in front of her. She saw, as from a great distance in a dream, Wybie topple forward. She saw the Czarina's hand rise up, shining red in the dull light.
She thought she saw...
Then she saw the wound that ran up Wybie's back, red blossoming out past the rent in the coat, and she saw the slight unsteadiness of the Czarina, and then she saw what else glinted beneath Wybie's coat, and then hope shot up inside her like fire, filling the spaces of hollow dread in her.
The Czarina's huge, delicate, blade-fingers had been perfect for slashing through flesh and cloth, and had easily cut through the fireman's coat, and could have easily cut through Wybie like tissue paper.
But Wybie hadn't just been wearing the coat. He'd been wearing his bulky, awkward, outdated, itchy back brace, and the force of the Czarina's slash had been robbed by rigid metal and plastic. Her strike had barely sheared through it and drawn blood in a long cut, but nothing more. And even as he fell on his face on the flagstones, Wybie let out a gasp of pain at the sudden addition to his collection of aches.
The Czarina screeched with absolute fury, and her claw-hands reached out for the prone Wybie. Her face bent into a vicious snarl, and her teeth glinted as she lowered her mouth.
Coraline was already moving, hurling herself from her kneeling position, moving faster than she had ever moved before. Her hand, working on automatic, reached out and seized the bat from the ground. Her hair was wild, her eyes blazed, and she screamed an inarticulate battle-cry as she ran, grasping the bat tightly with both hands.
The Czarina had the advantage on her in strength, height, speed, and reach. Her claws could slash through metal, and she was vast orders of magnitude more powerful than the Beldam Coraline had just fought and barely defeated.
Coraline didn't care.
This was the Czarina's realm. She could reshape it with a thought, deny Coraline any tactical advantage, make the world do her bidding.
Coraline didn't care about that, either.
Coraline was tired. She'd just fought the Beldam and taken heavy knocks to her back, and whatever energy fuelled her was only borrowed adrenaline and spite.
She didn't care.
All she saw was Wybie, her friend, under the feet of the Czarina, and all that mattered to her was getting her friend out of there, and all she intended to do was to make the Czarina pay.
She lunged and brought the bat across the reaching Czarina's claws, in a brutal smash that sent the claws flying off to one side, and which sent the unprepared, off-balance Czarina scuttling back on her four massive legs, quickly giving herself some breathing space. She lowered her torso and spread her great arms out to each side, and began circling Coraline in what could only be described as the Beldam equivalent of a knife-fighter's stance.
Coraline quickly stepped past Wybie and nudged him with her shoe to get him to start moving. He slowly started to crawl and to try to stand. The Czarina didn't notice him, so intent was she upon Coraline. Hatred was writ all over her face.
"You will die screaming, you little speck," she hissed.
"That makes two of us," said Coraline. She then jumped back as the Czarina's claws leapt out and slashed at Coraline. She avoided the blows, just to step within range of the sudden downwards strikes of her great hands. She stepped back just in time from those as well – and then the Czarina rose on her two back legs and drove the front two down at Coraline, scissoring them in the air. Coraline dropped onto her back to avoid them, and rolled away from the Czarina and picked herself up again as quickly as she could.
"You dare to defy me?" spat the Czarina. "You arrogant little worm. I am a god here. You are nothing." She advanced on Coraline as she spoke. Her great hand once again sliced through the air at Coraline, who stepped back out of range again.
A razor-sharp leg stabbed out at Coraline, and she knocked it away with the bat. She withdrew quickly, trying to take stock of her surroundings, for anything that could help.
She saw that Maria was stirring, and moving towards Wybie, who was pulling himself up. He took the lighter that lay on the ground, perhaps just reaching out for something familiar. They both looked at Coraline and her combat, and their faces were shot through with concern.
"Get out of here! I can handle her!" yelled Coraline. She tried to step in closer to the Czarina to get in a solid blow with the bat, but a sudden whirling barrier of metal limbs made that a suicidal proposition, and she backed off. A overhead slash from a great hand forced her to duck, and she had to keep backing away, holding the bat tight to her.
The Czarina crouched and tensed, and then she broke into a run right at Coraline. She was faster than Coraline could ever be as well, and she was on the girl in a matter of seconds.
Coraline, bereft of all other options, desperately threw herself to the floor as the Czarina charged over her, and only frantic dodging and rolling and blind luck prevented her from being struck by one of the metal limbs that stabbed down at the ground around her. For a second, she was in the darkness of the Czarina's shadow, and the thunder of her passage filled her ears, and then she was free and pulling herself up again.
The Czarina's sheer mass and momentum were difficult to arrest, and she made a wide circle to came back to facing Coraline, her feet-points leaving deep grooves in the floor. She stared right at Coraline, her jaws heavy with slaver, her claws and hands dancing and writhing.
Coraline had followed the painstakingly-drilled instructions of Hwai-min. She had done her best to close off her fear for herself, closing it away in a compartment of her mind to be released and dealt with later. She was doing all she could to approach the fight in a careful and controlled way. She was doing all she could, period.
But she felt, with a growing and hollow and inevitable sensation, that that wouldn't be enough. She was almost certainly going to lose.
The Czarina left great hand suddenly struck out at Coraline's feet, and she barely leapt back to avoid it. It struck into the flagstones scant inches from her toes, and sent up sparks. Coraline lunged at it with the bat, but it drew back quickly.
Then it struck out again, and Coraline once more stepped back with scant inches to spare. The Czarina drew her hand back again, laughing, toying with her prey.
"What did you think you could do?" she sneered. "Fight me? Kill me? You're helpless." She slashed out again, and Coraline jumped back -
- Only to realise that that was the Czarina's intention, to keep her focused on the one hand while the other tore down at her from above.
She ducked to one side, but she was too slow to avoid it altogether. The hand slashed down, and the points of the longest two fingers hit the left side of Coraline's face. Pain exploded across her left cheek, blinding her, cutting off all other thoughts, and making her helpless against the follow-up blow.
One of the Czarina's claw-hands curled into a fist, and slammed out into Coraline's midriff. She was picked up by the force of the blow and tossed across the room like a ragdoll, and collided with the floor amidst a whirlwind of rushing noise and chaotic pain.
She couldn't think. She tried to think. She couldn't move. She tried to move.
Shaking, she pushed herself to her feet using the bat as a support, her head pounding like a full marching band was putting on a show inside. She blearily reached up with her left hand to touch her cut cheek, and her glove came away red and sticky with her blood.
While she fought off dizziness, she looked up and saw that she was facing the faraway exit, placing her just next to the central brick pillar. Wybie and Maria were next to the open exit, but they hadn't left. They wouldn't.
Then the Czarina stepped elegantly back into her field of view, between her and Wybie and Maria.
"I shall not make this quick," she purred. She innocently flexed her right hand, letting Coraline see the drops that fell off it.
Something felt broken in Coraline. Or maybe nothing was, and it was meant to hurt this much when you got gut-punched by something the size of the Czarina.
She had never felt so tired, had never wanted so badly to just lie down and shut the world away. She'd failed. She'd been stupid to come, she didn't have a hope, all that could happen was that Wybie and Maria could get away (but they wouldn't leave her alone) and she could hold the Czarina here long enough to …
She took a step back, and she backed into one of the lower barrels of Seneca Petroleum. She automatically steadied herself on it with one hand.
A plan suddenly came to her, weaving itself together out of random strands of thought in less than an instant.
It was a stupid plan. It was an insane plan. It was a plan that relied on too many things Coraline couldn't control, that had so many ways in which it could go wrong. But it did, after all, rely on the same basic principles that had worked so well against another Beldam.
Single-minded focus was an excellent trait for natural predators.
Apart from when it wasn't.
She steadied herself for the last time and, bat in hand, pushed past her pain, her doubts, and her despair. She started walking towards the Czarina.
"If you want me," she spat, pointing the bat at the Czarina, "Then come and get me. Come on, coward!"
The Czarina screeched with rage and hurled herself into a run right at Coraline. Coraline started running as well, straight towards the Czarina. She held the bat with both hands, and she yelled out an incoherent cry of pure defiance and challenge as she ran.
The Czarina thundered towards Coraline, and Coraline smacked away one swipe from a great hand with the bat and ducked under the other one. The claws streaked at her, and she threw herself into a baseball player's slide, and the curving fingers swept harmlessly overhead, brushing at her hair.
And then she drew upon what was left of her strength and, with all her anger, all her determination, and all her might, drove the bat up and brought it upon one of the joints in the Czarina's back right leg.
It hammered into the joint and buckled it with a sickening lurch and a scream of pain from the Czarina. She flailed and skidded helplessly, robbed of her control, unable to direct her momentum in any direction other than 'straight ahead'.
The Czarina flew into the pyramid of brass-bound barrels, and crashed amidst them with a sound like thunder and a rain of splinters. Fragments of staves and shattered brass hoops cascaded down on her in a torrent, and a veritable waterfall of blue-black liquid fell upon and around her, and the Czarina bellowed in rage and writhed to get free of the avalanche atop her.
Coraline didn't stop moving. She immediately rose from her knees and walked briskly towards the wide-eyed Wybie and Maria. She tossed the baseball bat at their feet.
"The lighter, Wybie," she said. "Right now."
He tossed her the lighter unquestioningly. She seized it with her left hand and turned back to the buried Czarina, who was furiously shaking off oil and barrel-shards. She pulled herself free from the shattered pile by degrees, her claws ripping away sections of wood and brass, her great hands pinned and unable to move.
With her left thumb and index finger, Coraline tugged off her right glove, the only one that wasn't damp with blood. She transferred the lighter to her right hand and, keeping the right glove dangling, flicked a spark from the lighter. She touched it to the tip of the glove, and watched the flames catch and begin to creep up it. Green and orange blurred together and became bright, leaping flame. While it burned, she bent down and picked up a stone from the ground and slipped it inside the glove and tied the end off. It would need weight.
Then she began to spin the arm that held the glove, letting it gather speed, turning it into a nimbus of fire in the air. And at the height of one spin, she threw it right at the Czarina.
The glove arced through the air like a shooting star, leaving am amber trail behind it, sparks and burning fibres shed in its wake. It dropped towards the pinned Czarina and hit her face in a slap, and fell down between her legs towards a pool of oil and splinters.
It landed palm-down. And then it caught the oil, and then the world blazed.
Fire screamed like a demon hurled out of hell. The heat and force all but exploded up from beneath the Czarina in its mindless wrath, detonating with light and heat in the air. It sucked in air to feed itself, a ravening firestorm that engulfed the Czarina and the pile atop her, the thunderous roar of the flames modulated by the frantic screams of the Czarina, reduced to a twisting shadow at the heart of the inferno.
Coraline watched it with dark satisfaction and a grim smile, the fires reflected in her eyes. It wasn't a reassuring expression, especially against an all-red side of her face.
"Coraline?" called Wybie, snapping her back to reality and away from the dark place her thoughts had gone. "Come on! We have to go!"
She turned her back on the fire and started walking towards them briskly. Wybie was standing as best he could, though his teeth were gritted and his eyes ran with the pain across his back. He held the bat in one hand. Maria leaned on him slightly for support. One of her feet seemed to be twisted at an unnatural angle. Both of them looked as exhausted as Coraline, and terrified.
"That..." started Wybie, lost for words as Coraline came closer. "That … with the lighter … and then you … Jesus Christ on a bicycle."
"She's down. We have to go," said Coraline. She reached out with both her hands. "Come on, I'll help you both..."
The spit and crackle of the flames, sharpened by shrieks, suddenly acquired a new sound. The sound of shifting and cracking wood and debris.
Coraline turned to see what was happening. The high pile of incandescent rubble was shifting, as if something was fighting it from within.
And then a claw-hand, glowing red-hot and trailing fire that had affixed itself to the metal, came hurtling out of the flames and gouged into the flagstones. The elbow bent, and the fire cascaded forwards. Another hand shot out and slammed into the ground.
Past the hands, Coraline could make out a face obscured by flame. The screams grew louder. The Czarina was pulling herself free.
The walls of the station started to shift and crack as the Czarina lost control, the colours began to be literally peeled off the furthest walls to be replaced by shades of grey. And the peeling of colour spread, and the greyness began to crumble away to nothing.
"Run!" Coraline yelled, rushing back to Wybie and Maria, seizing a hand each and pulling them along. "Come on, quickly!" Maria stifled a scream as her weight came down on her injured foot, and hobbled on past it as best she could.
"Oh, god. What's trying to kill us now?" said Wybie weakly.
"Less talking, more running away." They flew for the open door, and stepped out onto the rails. Coraline glanced behind her at the station's inside.
The station rocked and clashed in its throes, a condition that increased as the Czarina ripped herself free with a terrible force, her claws flying and tearing at the ground with machine-like strength and ferocity, physically hauling herself out of the inferno, but carrying it with her anyway.
She was a burnt corpse from the waist up, a blackened and screaming creature whose flesh sloughed off in flakes of ash, revealing metal bones. Her carapace was equally burnt, and everything of her that was metal blazed like the sun. Her hair, what was left, had become a halo of flame. Her face had become something from an insomniac's darkest nightmares. Her button-eyes were circles of fire. The leg Coraline had broken dragged behind her. One of her thin great arms had been warped and bent by the force of the heat.
She was still burning. She was still wrapped in wreathes of fire.
And she screamed as she came after the three.
"NO MERCY FOR YOU, NO MERCY!" she screamed, from a harsh and torn throat, as she fell into a scuttle made strange by her useless, hanging limbs. "YOU WILL SUFFER AS YOU HAVE NEVER SUFFERED!"
"Keep running!" yelled Coraline, stepping as quickly as she could across the rails leading to the doorway to the Merch Mart. This wasn't helped in the slightest by the fact that as they ran, the rails and ties were thinning and becoming liquor-black, coin-thick web strands, suspended in the air between the doorways and the station. Every step had the potential to unbalance them and sending them falling forever. She was terrified for the other two, worried that their footing would be nowhere near as sure as hers (and her own was pretty unsteady.) She grasped their hands tight and pressed on.
The Czarina scuttled out of the door after them and picked her way along the bridge-web after them, making it wobble and lurch and almost tip them over. She didn't stop screaming.
"YOUR EYES WILL BE TORN OUT, YOUR SKIN WILL BE FLAYED FROM YOUR FLESH, YOUR FLESH WILL BE SCOURGED FROM YOUR BONES..."
The door was so, so close. Twenty feet. Fifteen feet. Ten feet. Five...
There was another horrific lurch from the web, and Coraline feared that it would be the one to capsize them. But she managed to retain her footing on the strands. And Wybie and Maria, weak as they were, held their ground.
The station was destroying itself behind them. A holocaust of spreading fire ripped it to pieces from the inside out even as it dissolved itself to conserve the Czarina's energy, which Coraline guessed she was burning through just to keep herself alive. The other far doorways were starting to wink out, and the web-bridges leading to them were rotting away in the blink of an eye.
"...YOU WILL BEG FOR DEATH, YOUR BLOOD WILL FLOW, YOUR BONES WILL BE SHATTERED ONE BY ONE..."
Some people might have observed that the Czarina was not in a good mood. Not Coraline. She was too busy shoving Wybie and Maria ahead of herself into the open door, and leaping onto the edge and pulling herself through after them. She landed on her knees, with the other two coughing and drawing breath just ahead of her.
For a moment, elation surged through her. They had made it, they were free of Wells Street Station, the Czarina wouldn't...
"...AND I WILL THIRST AND BREAK AND KILL AND KILL AND KILL..."
Ah, right. The door was still open. That could be a problem.
Coraline leaned out and tried to grab the door shut. But to her mounting horror, it was at too obtuse an angle to the doorway for her to reach the copper handle from her position. Whatever purchase she tried to get on the edges slipped off, the door refused to budge. The Czarina scuttled closer.
"...KILL AND KILL AND KILL..."
Frantically, Coraline turned around and considered outrunning the Czarina up the tunnel. But that wasn't an option. Nearly everything she'd had had been taken out of her, she knew she couldn't muster the strength for an uphill run. And Maria couldn't run with that foot. And that Wybie wasn't unconscious from blood loss was a miracle. They couldn't run.
Coraline knew then in her gut that this really was the end, that it was over. All she could do was stand here for the Czarina to come. The Czarina kept on coming, and the station completely collapsed into nothingness behind her. The doorway they were in was the last one left, and the web-bridge leading to it flapped loose without a structure at the other end. But the Czarina kept coming.
"...KILL AND KILL AND KILL..."
Coraline turned to the oncoming Czarina, still crouched on her knees, and bunched her hands into fists. She took a pugilistic stance, tiny and absurd in the face of the monster nearly upon her.
"Come on, then," she whispered with force.
The Czarina screeched and shot one great hand through the doorway, grabbing into it and digging her fingers into the left wall to give herself support. Her claws retained a tight grip on the web-bridge. Her face, all cauterised, burning skin and blazing teeth, poked through into the tunnel.
Coraline's fist blurred in the air and broke what was left of the Czarina's nose. The fires blistered her hand, and although the Czarina's head briefly snapped back from the force of it, she immediately pushed back through, the heat beating off her in waves and her open jaws glistening.
There was movement to either side of Coraline. She flicked her head from side to side briefly to see what it was.
To her left and slightly behind her, Wybie stood as straight as he could, holding the baseball bat with both hands.
To her right and below her, Maria lay tensed and ready, her tiny box-knife held in her hand.
Coraline crouched between them, her fists still raised.
Suddenly, with every ounce of strength that remained to him, Wybie yelled and brought the bat around in a whirlwind movement right onto the Czarina's hand. It smashed right through, and shards of metal fingers clattered to the floor. The Czarina howled and reflexively drew back the hand.
Maria, at the same time, lashed out with the box knife and drew it straight across the web strands connected to the bottom of the doorway. For all that the box knife was cheap and plasticy, the blade at the end was still sharp steel, and it slashed right through the strands like butter.
The Czarina hung in mid-air for one brief moment, robbed of both of her holds on solid ground. Her other hand flailed out in a desperate effort to catch the door itself, but she caught it with too much force and desperation, and it was ripped clean off its hinges, sending it falling down into the white void.
The Czarina fell after it with tremendous momentum, flames shedding off in the air above her as she plummeted. "...Kill and kill and kill..." still erupted from her throat, carried to the three for as long as the empty air could carry it.
She burned all the way down, her light lasting longer than her voice, until it became a tiny flickering prick amidst white space on all sides, and finally vanished altogether.
Then it was over. But not ended.
Coraline and Wybie and Maria sank to the tunnel floor, in silence. Adrenaline ebbed. Exhaustion followed its absence.
"Wybie, does that hurt?" asked Coraline after a while.
He considered his responses for a moment, before deciding on "Nope. Doesn't hurt at all. Feels like a breeze in spring. Why do you ask?"
Coraline couldn't muster the energy to punch his shoulder, so he got off lucky. "Where's the soul bag, Maria?"
"A cat came and got it." They all nodded. They were past questioning a statement like that.
"Well, you know, that was alright while it lasted," said Wybie, his voice drained but still managing to convey a smile. "A bit dull, though. We should bring coffee next time to keep ourselves awake. It needed more thrills, I thought."
"You really need psychiatric help, Why-Were-You-Born," said Coraline without rancour.
For a while they just sat there in silence. Each ache was a scar of victory, the price of defeating the Czarina.
But empty wind now blew through where had once been Wells Street Station, serene silence through space once filled by screams. If that was the reward of victory, then it had been worth it, and a thousand expeditions like it.
"We should probably go and get medical help at some point," said Coraline, the thought occupying to her after another stabbing pain came from her cheek. She would likely have scars there, she knew.
"I might be able to stand if I had help," said Wybie. "It's a matter of me not bleeding out before we get up the tunnel."
"I don't think I could. Sorry," said Maria.
"Well, look, one of us could go and..."
There was the sound of heavy footfalls from the tunnel above them, and the glow of an oncoming flashlight cutting through the darkness. The three turned to see who was coming.
The flashlight was connected to a blocky assault rifle, and the assault rifle was connected to a man in heavy dark blue body armour. The insignia of the Chicago SWAT division glinted on his shoulders. His pace slowed as he neared the three, and stopped altogether as he looked down at them and then out at the open void through the stone doorway.
Although his face was entirely concealed by a helmet fitted with a gas mask, it was still easy to imagine the expression on his face at that exact moment.
Coraline, sympathising with the man's confusion (while still a little annoyed that he'd shown up a little late), opened her mouth to start trying to explain things, but the man shook his head as soon as she started.
"No, don't even bother," he said. "I imagine whatever the hell's happened here, it's about to become way, way above my pay grade to deal with it. The higher-ups can have fun with this one." He turned back up the tunnel. "Kowalski! Get your ass down here and bring your first aid kit! We've got three hurt kids!"
"Three meddling kids," muttered Wybie, and Coraline and Maria tried to suppress giggles.
A barrage of impressions hit Coraline when she was carried out on a stretcher, out into Chicago.
First, the sun. The clouds had broken apart, and for the moment, it shone like a coin in the clear blue sky, bathing the buildings and pavement in a soft, golden light.
Then, the wind. It was a gentle breeze that beat against her. The surface of the river rippled under it, and trees waved slightly in it. It flicked at stray strands of her hair, that of it which wasn't plastered against her scalp.
As the stretcher moved to an ambulance, she saw that there were lots of people around, hundreds, maybe thousands. They looked up at the Mart and stared and shouted to each other about her and Wybie and Maria on the stretchers as they came out of the building. Police formed a thin line between them and the Mart, most of whom looked as though they'd been having a long day and would be glad to see the end of it.
They moved on. Press people stood in a knot amidst the crowd and directed the glare of camera up at the building, taking shot after endless shot of it. Coraline wondered why they were doing that, though she wasn't too inclined to ponder it. The police medic had injected her and the other two with some kind of painkiller, that impeded pain and direct thought while making colours look incredible.
Speaking of the other two, she turned her head slightly and caught sight of them next to her. Maria seemed to be absorbed by the clouds and flights of birds above her, her eyes flickering with the need to sleep. But Wybie saw her gaze, and returned it with a slightly concussed grin and a slight wave.
Past him, Coraline thought she could see her parents and his grandmother. They were accompanied by police, and they looked very upset and very relieved about something, and Coraline briefly tried to remember what that was before deciding that it would come to her after a short sleep.
The crowd rolled and Chicago turned like a wasp's next as the three were loaded into an ambulance to receive attention for their cuts and scrapes. A short distance away, a SWAT officer was explaining things to a police captain, who was listening with the reigned expression of one who knows that this conversation is going to make their day even longer than it was previously. Mel and Charlie and Miss Lovat pushed past police to the ambulance to see their kids and grandchild. The city was a tumult, and would remain so for at least another week.
And below the city, nothing stirred for the first time in centuries. And around the city, three hundred tiny souls sped and flew through the streets, laughing and playing in the light as they rose into the sky.
It was the very definition of a beautiful day in the Windy City.
That's it. You've made it to the end. You're free to run away now. Unless you were reading this of your own free will, you crazy, crazy person.
I'd like to thank everyone who reviewed and commented on this. Thank you, in no particular order, WybiE'z KidNapPer (Miss Thimble advises that you use chloroform), deedeedragonwolf, Sifu Toph, Model Builder, talking black kitty of night, Mandy the Oddball, Calyn, James Birdsong, Autumn's Melody, and WybourneObsessed. You're all excellent. And even if you've made it this far without reviewing, you're still excellent.
This isn't the end of this particular story. At some point in the hopefully-not-too-distant future, I plan to begin writing a followup to this, at the moment entitled 'The Ellipse'.
Until then, stay safe, keep reading stuff, and if a little door appears in your living room, then for the love of god, don't go near.
- Marquis Carabas, signing off.