My hand yanked a head up out of the water.
"What . . .?"
The rest of a body erupted back out into the world in a violent rush. Rancid water crashed down from its face, plastered black with slime, sludge, and the grime in its scalp. It gasped out loud like some half-drowned corpse, gagging on the thick air. There was too much of it from the sounds it made, and not enough. The whole thing shook with the shock of that sudden life.
It was a girl.
I let her go. I pulled my hand back from the slimy, ragged mass of her tangled hair, and couldn't help wincing as I smeared it against the side of my dirty field jacket. She pitched forward back toward the murky water, but caught herself just before falling in again.
"What the hell is it, Brennan?"
Someone else was edging up behind me, but I ignored that harsh whisper for a moment, just staring. The girl was choking up her lungs there in the grass and reeds. I could still barely make her out in the dark. She ignored me too.
The other growled loudly in his throat, and started trudging his way toward me at the river shallows' edge. He opened his mouth to say something more - but caught himself up instantly at the sight of that woman in the mud.
"God, is that ...?" he trailed off, almost too quiet to hear.
We stared at the woman. She stared down into the black water. I imagined that night had come on some time ago - what passed for it in that interminable dark - and silence hung all too thick in the heavy air. The woman started laughing - low, and quiet.
"Brennan! Liam! Goddamnit, we need to keep moving!"
One of the others was hissing at us from back through the reeds towards the treeline. Two more lingered in that one's wake, shifting uneasily there in the dark. Not another living thing to make a sound around for kilometers. No birds. No crickets. Not even croaking frogs along the river.
Still, so alien.
Liam was digging his fingers into my arm. I glanced back at him. Then again, down at the girl. She had managed to keep her face just out of the water long enough to remember how to breathe without it in her lungs.
"What about her?" I gestured down.
Liam didn't even look at the woman. He just started pulling me away.
"Forget about her!" he snarled. "We have to keep moving!"
"Hey, you two better move goddamnit!"
I just shook myself roughly free of Liam's clutching hand, though, and dropped back down into the stagnant water beside the girl.
"Get up," I told her, pulling her up anyways by the shoulders. She didn't resist, and I shoved her back onto shore, sloshing too loudly through the water.
"I don't care who you are, but you're coming with us," I tried to chastise her, but felt hollow even at that. It was hard to get out of my head just how dead she had looked when I had found her floating in the dank waters.
"It's not safe."
Liam had already spun back away toward the others. They were moving. Hurried footsteps creaked through the dead forest anew, and I prodded that comatose girl, stumbling along, as quickly as I could.
The undergrowth should have been thick, but was not. Not with that black decay that hung over everything so thick instead. I all but dragged my feet so the girl could keep pace, though I had a firm hand on her back pushing her headlong forward. She barely seemed aware at all, muddling on like the corpse I was almost sure that she had been. Maybe it wasn't just my imagination. She was mumbling a little to herself.
One of the others - Shawn - glanced back just long enough to get a look at what had kept us.
"You've gotta be kidding me."
He opened his mouth to say something more. But Evetts up front stopped us all with a warning hand.
"Hold up," Dustan repeated just barely loud enough for the res tof us to hear. He made a subtle gesture, almost invisible in the dark. And we paused.
I held my breath. The girl didn't. Liam had his eyes darting every which way. Not that it would have done us a whole lot of good in the dark. I left it up to my ears. Shawn had a hand buried beneath his coat, staring.
"Do you see anything?"
The girl was still muttering.
"Shut the fuck up!"
Liam pointed. Shawn spun around that way, hand still inside his coat. So did the others. I squinted after them.
We were all still. Staring.
Shawn had started, slowly, to pull that hand free.
Then something whispered in my ear.
Shawn came whipping back around with his hand out and pointed away behind. Light flared ahead of his fingers. It exploded out, bursting into the trees. Then it turned to fire.
Whatever was there, it scattered into smoke, and vanished just as quickly as the burst of light. A chunk of bark was torn away and smoldering, glimmering in the gloom. It was hard to tell if that was what made that sudden hissing noise.
We were all quiet again after that for some time.
"Did you get it?" someone finally breathed.
And then that hissing finally stopped. The embers died out.
"Get ... what?" Shawn muttered back uselessly.
And the clicking started.
Someone said it. I wasn't sure who. But Liam was already moving.
I didn't waste a second trying to prod that catatonic girl - I just caught her by the arm and under one leg and slung her across my back. Shawn started backpedaling slowly, picking up speed as he came back around, still staring off. Dustan and Evetts had the lead on him by several seconds.
We all took off into the forest. Away from that clicking.
Branches scratched at my face as I ran. I threw one hand out for balance, as much to ward them away as to keep from running headlong into a tree as I lumbered along with my own breath rattling in my ears. The others were shouting elsewhere, close by. Dirt and brush kicked up everywhere loudly, all hope for silence and hiding shattered in an instant. It didn't matter anymore now that the big ones had found us.
The clicking was bad. But the whispers were worse.
Dead leaves and pine needles cracked underfoot. The air was damp, and sticking. A fog lingered somewhere ahead. I could feel himself run right into it. Someone shouted something about that, but I couldn't hear over the sound of blood thumping in my veins.
The voices came through. At least, we had thought they were voices. Whatever they were saying, it was beyond me - low, and insidious, deep in the base of the skull. They made it hard to concentrate. Thankfully, there was only one thing any of us could think to do.
But it got closer, just like before. And there weren't so much of us left now.
I started to flag, and a surge of desperation at that drove me just a little bit harder. The girl was weighing down like deadweight and fire on my back, but I didn't drop her just yet. I plodded on a few dozen more desperate steps and . . .
Came up short.
Dustan nearly blew a hole right through my head. The man had his firebolt aimed right at the space between the trees where I came stumbling leadenly through. As it was, I just managed to duck aside. The blast slipped clean past the girl as well, lighting up one of those dead, crooked trees and burning a fiery hole into the night behind.
I didn't even have the breath to shout at the man. As it was, Liam snatched one of my arms and hauled me back up to my feet and into their little circle.
Each of the other four had his own weapon in hand, whatever they had had left pointed haphazardly off into the still, dark forest. The whispering was catching up. So was the clicking. Nothing else moved.
"Come on, Brennan!" Liam snapped at me as he pulled me up toward a broken tree at their center. "Move your ass, god damnit!"
The others pulled back around us, still aiming away. There was the brief thought in my head that they should never have stopped moving. Even for me.
But then it was gone.
Still - one of them didn't quite make it.
Evetts spared me two and the girl one glance back over his shoulder. He opened his mouth to say something, but never got it out. The sound caught in his throat instead, like he was gagging on his own tongue. Liam blinked at him, unregistering. Then something punched right up out Evett's back through the chest.
I don't think Liam saw what it was, and neither did Evetts. We never had before. The dead man just slowly came back around, his pale face painted incredulous. His whole body flew away into the night.
Liam started firing wildly after. So did Dustan. Shawn held back, poised and watching.
I caught that dead tree ahead in one hand without Liam's help, and pulled myself up onto the mound. The other man was roaring, bellowing out after Evetts into the night. I finally managed to slip the girl around and dropped her down to the ground. She rolled back against the blackened bark, still just as dazed and clueless.
"Hey!" I tried to slap her on the side of the face a few times. That seemed to bring a bit of sense back into her. The others were firing desperately into the black wood behind. I pulled out my own beaten-up little handcannon, and cocked the chamber open, peeking inside. Still some juice left.
The girl managed to blink up at me as I slapped the round back home.
"Who are you?"
I ignored her. "Just ... Stay here!" I grunted through my teeth, pocketing the last few rounds I had left and pressing a firm hand down hard on her shoulder. I scurried back up around the trunk of the tree before I could say anything else, and glanced around back to the others.
"Over here!" both Liam and Dustan were shouting at the same time from opposite sides of that small clearing drowned in dark all around. The fog had crept in, and they were firing blindly into the shadows and mist. Shawn was behind and between them, aiming from first one, then the other, then anywhere else in between.
Something caught Dustan's leg. He cried out, and it came off at the knee. The pitch went shrill as he started to topple, shots going wide. Two holes appeared in stomach and chest, and he lost an arm. Whatever was left of him pitched into the dirt, twitching. Then it was snatched away.
I could hear that fresh corpse scraping suddenly against the dirt even if I couldn't see it. Liam and Shawn were both firing now, right where Dustan had been. Something shrieked in response, but it was hard to tell if they had actually hit. So they just kept on shooting.
I joined in, adding a shout with the sudden whoomp of my cannon along with Liam's for good measure. The other man was howling like mad now and thrusting his rifle that way like he might stab it right through whatever it was that had taken Evetts and Dustan. It was the only reason I knew when it had gotten him too. That bellowing roar suddenly cut short.
Liam's head was gone. Even with all that light flashing around the forest like lightning in the dark, I couldn't see just how it had happened. The body kept firing, though, finger twitching sporadically and arm swinging wide. It came up toward me back up the mound, and I leapt into the dirt just as a bit of fire and light clipped my shoulder. As it was, the tree behind me with the girl nearly split in two, sprinkling me with a swarm of ash and smoldering cinders.
Shawn's weapon clicked empty a few times before he registered it, echoing loudly like clanging bells in the night. He'd taken a knee, probably hoping for some leverage in aim. Not that there was anything to aim at really. Now his eyes flashed wide. Still, he kept trying to fire for several more seconds before it finally sunk in.
A hand vanished inside his coat. It came back out with a fistful of rounds, most of them scattering into the dirt and dark his fingers were shaking so much. He did manage to get one of them into the chamber.
"Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!"
His firebolt sang as it loaded. It was the most beautiful sound a man could have possibly heard just then. Or ever, for that matter. And he raised it again toward that creeping dark.
I was back up on one knee, coughing up bits of burning wood and the smell of dead meat. Just in time to see Shawn look sharply to one side and try to twist that way almost as fast. He didn't quite make it. Not before another something had rushed right in and taken the top half of him away into the night.
I froze. For one, terrible moment - there was only the rush of blood to my still-attached head as I watched the remainder of Shawn twitch into the ground. There was nothing else. No bolts of fire. No bodies. No sounds but that clicking in the dark. It was everywhere.
I blinked back toward the tree. The girl. She was still hidden behind it where I had left her. Quiet still. Hidden. I hoped.
It was an easy choice. The only one I had left, really.
I ran. But I didn't get far.
My feet took off at a dead sprint through the dark in the opposite way, cutting just past where the others had gone down and those things had come. I took off away from the tree and the girl. I clutched the barrel of my cannon in one hand and ran as hard as I could, despite the dark. Dead brush and scuffed boots sang in the fog.
I didn't get far.
Down the hill, through a few clusters of trees and dead roots. Past whipping, brittle branches and clicking bark. I managed to get a hundred feet or so, and that surprised me. Then something took one of my legs right out from under me.
I flew up into the air and the world slowed as I did. Too much adrenaline and the beginnings of a brief vision of desperate clarity. Then I went face first into the dirt and a loose round exploded out from the barrel with my twitchy finger. The force of it sent me tumbling headlong over the other way.
I hit the ground on my back, arm numb. Whatever it had been, it wasn't some root. I knew that. It had torn me clean up from the ground by one ankle as if I weight no more than a child. And my whole body had twisted around into it.
The leg was still there. Both of them. Thank God.
So was the clicking. It started to hiss in my ear.
And I was crawling quickly away again.
I made it a few dozen more feet. I thought. It took a few seconds, but the sharp, stinging pain finally caught up with my arm where it had all but been wrenched out of the socket. I gritted my teeth, biting back. Then something gouged my left calf.
There was the shrill cry of something in the wood. It took me a moment, but I realized it was me. I threw the cannon in my limp arm back around behind me, snatching the trigger with my other, still good hand.
A ball of flame exploded away wildly into the night, blinding me. And so did that thing. It was a wonder I didn't suddenly feel my leg come away with it. Still, I didn't catch a glimpse of what it was more than a swarm of inky-black shadows in the dark.
I was free again. Enough to launch myself back up to my feet and glance back behind. There was nothing there to see now, though. Nothing, but the ragged sound of my breathing in the dark.
Another blast fired off behind me for good measure.
I limped away, bleeding down my leg. But it was a useless effort. Whatever those things were, they were on top of me already. That clicking and hissing and whispering had already burrowed deep down into the back of my skull and was starting to eat out my brain.
I just kept firing back. Until there was nothing left.
And then I threw the gun.
My good foot caught empty air where there should have been ground. It sent me twisting wildly around and forward and down. Just before I could fall, I saw that mass of black-as-pitch rush at me out of nothing. Something stabbed right through my chest, sticking me there in mid-air fast.
Another shrill cry shot past my lips, and I was goggling down at that something sticking right through one side of me. It was long, and slender like a slip of steel. But there was life in it. I could feel it ebbing just past my lung.
And I could feel it as I snatched the thing in my one good hand, howling out through my teeth. Blood slipped out of hand as it tore up and I pushed the thing back out of me. Or tried to. Rather, I slid himself back out around it.
This time something snatched in for my head. I was already falling backwards, though, clutching at that hole in flesh and bone stuck right through beneath my shoulder. It swiped me across the other arm - the broken one. Slicing open shoulder and more sodden flesh. I barely felt it. My whole body twisted back around instead, as I plummeted over and down.
I waited for the ground to come up to meet me, but it never did. Instead, there was only empty air. And the rush of cool wind.
And then there was only black.