A/N: Just beyond the dividing line lies the last chapter of the rough draft of my first book. It's gonna need some tweaking, but I'd love to hear what you think so far. Enjoy :)
"Guys we have a problem!" John interrupted as soon as he burst into the meeting room. He had recovered his breath on the way to the council room but was still slick with sweat from the hard run to get back. "There's a new kind of monster. It's like a guide or scout. It flies and it can see."
"What?" Bill asked, looking pale.
"The first seemed to function as scouts. I killed a big one and when I burnt it, it's screaming seemed to halt the advance, but there was another smaller one that got them all moving towards us again before I could kill it."
"How many?" Bill asked
"Honestly, I didn't get the opportunity to count that high but if I had to imagine what a million monsters looked like, I'd say that's about what the horde looked like."
The declaration was met with gasps of astonishment.
"There's more. The big bird got them all moving and killing and it got them all stopped, but the smaller bird was only able to get about half of them moving again.
"Meaning that, even if we manage to defend ourselves from the first wave, the skirmish would almost certainly draw the second wave," Bill asked.
"That's about the size of it." John agreed.
"I shot an arrow through one of them on the front edge. It screamed as it died and took a couple with it, but the main pack didn't even flinch." John told them, "I don't know if we'll be able to turn them away."
"Damn." Bill grumbled, "When will they be here?"
"I can't say for certain. I tried to gauge their pace as best as I could, but if I had to ballpark it I would say it'd be a damn miracle if we weren't all dead by morning."
"Then we'd best reach a decision quickly." Brian jarred everyone back to reality.
"I think our best bet is to baton down the hatches as tightly as we can and take everyone and go either north or south until they pass us by." Adrian offered, "John already said that they couldn't be turned aside once the birds got them moving, maybe we'll get lucky and they'll just keep on heading in this direction until something stops them or grabs their attention."
"We've been setting up defences for months now, and we know they burn pretty readily, why not light them all on fire?" Sally asked.
"Can we do both?" Brian interjected, "Close up shop to protect all our supplies and food, then get ourselves out of the way and light the whole lot of them on fire?"
"I don't think we should leave." Another offered, "if we leave we run the risk of losing our home and all of our supplies. If we stay we can defend them. And we have walls to hide behind.
They bounced ideas back and forth for several minutes, combining and fine-tuning ideas before setting about the arduous task of getting everyone ready for what lay ahead.
There was still some confusion and unrest, but for the most part, things went smoothly. Scouts went out to monitor the advancing horde while sharpshooters got as high off the ground as they could to scan the skies for Guides.
By nightfall, they were as ready as they could be. Some industrious kids had even set about syphoning gas from all of the dead cars so that they could make Molotov cocktails. When they ran out of glass bottled they began filling used cans with gas, that way they could be used to distribute more of the flammable liquid amongst the monsters.
One of the lookouts, now pulled all the way back into the city-proper shone a light into the approaching horde and everyone present gasped as the few monsters that were illuminated seemed to emit their own glow in response to the light, and that spread through the whole horde until it looked like the sun was rising to the east.
"Jesus it's like daylight over there."
"Everything ready?" Someone else asked.
"No." Another answered, "But I guess we've done all we can."
"How many of the gas cans did we get placed around out there?"
"All of them."
"Well, here's hoping they work as well as we hope they will."
When the fighting started things got chaotic fast. The leading edge of the horde entered the chosen kill ground, the parking lot of an abandoned movie theatre, right next to the highway at the edge of the once-rapidly expanding city, the only building for several hundred feet in any direction. It was a veritable minefield of gas-filled cans, and when the creatures blindly walked over them, kicking them over and crushing them to slop their contents all over the ground and their legs.
Then came the arrows and Molotov cocktails, tracing arcs of fire and acrid smoke to ignite an inferno like none present had ever even imagined before.
Then the surrounding vegetation caught fire and spread quickly in all directions and engulfed the monsters. It tried to make it's way into the city proper but the grasses didn't burn hot enough for long enough to do more than minor damage to the outermost buildings.
John was shocked that things didn't get more out of hand than they did. A brush fire like that should have been enough to compromise most of the small city, and maybe even the province since there were no longer any firefighters. But the fires spread quickly through the brush and ignited the monsters, who burned so hot and so fast that it actually created a sort of vacuum effect that kept the fire pulling in towards the centre. By the time it died down there wasn't enough left to burn for it to spread outwards again so it just kind of smouldered and died out.
Even now, over a week later, you could still see wisps of white smoke drift lazily skyward from the ravaged theatre, and the cratered cement where the fire had burnt so hot, so fast, that it simply blew apart like landmines had been buried there.
"It still seems too lucky," Bill grumbled.
"I agree wholeheartedly." John told him, "But it wouldn't kill you to smile because we have kind of just been on the receiving end of a miracle."
"Seems risky," Bill grumbled with a mischievous glint in his eye.
"Any word from the scouts?"
"Yeah, they're still there," Bill told him.
"Think we should send some scouts down there and see how many we can kill?" John asked, "maybe we'll get lucky and they'll catch fire easily and burn themselves out before anything bad happens."
"Yeah, it's worth a shot." Bill hesitated.
"If you don't want to spare the manpower I can head down and see what I can do on my own." He suggested, "If memory serves, they're in a natural depression. It should be easy enough to use the high ground to my advantage. I doubt I'd get them all, but it would certainly reduce their numbers to something more manageable."
"No, take a few guys with you," Bill told him after a moments consideration. "No sense being foolish for its own sake."
"Alright, I'll round some folks up."
The six of them left at dawn, their mountain bikes making short work of the distance and terrain. The monsters hadn't moved since the big Guide had died, but it was best not to take chances. On the off chance that they decided to pack up and move out today, they planned to arrive when the sun would keep them pinned down at least a little.
"Why do you suppose they don't like moving in the sun?" Sara asked.
"Not sure," Brent replied.
"I always thought it had to do with how they react to light. You ever notice that if you shine a light on one in the dark and they light up, it seems to make them uncomfortable?"
"that's how it seems to me, anyway. I figured the sun lit them up too bright and it hurt to move, but when there's a bunch of them they create their own light that helps them deal with it."
"That makes no sense."
"Do you have a better theory?"
The argument pretty well died as they approached the eastern lookout where John had fought the Big Guide, and everyone looked at John, wondering how one man could have beaten something that left that big of a scorch mark.
"Did anyone notice that there seemed to be some hide remaining from the big bird?" Brent eventually asked.
"What do you mean?"
"Well I looked down as we peddled past, and it looked like there was still a charred husk remaining. Like a burned chicken that's been on the barbecue too long."
"We'll check it out when we come back," John spoke softly. They were still a handful of kilometres away, but no one wanted to risk alerting the creatures and enticing them to begin moving again. Not when they were in such a perfect kill box.
Each bike towed a carrier, like the kind you could put two children in side-by-side, full of Molotov cocktails and pop cans full of gas. As they approached the next overpass John pulled ahead and singled for everyone to veer right and take the offramp.
By now everyone was deathly silent. They were still a few kilometres from the horde, but there was an ominous sort of weight to the air now. They stood silently looking towards the monsters. They were still too far away for anyone but John to make out individual beasts. They all watched for several minutes with the aid of binoculars.
"Anyone see anything?" John whispered.
Everyone shook their head 'no'.
"Still want to go through with this?" Five heads nodded.
"Last chance to turn back." Everyone looked determined and unflinching.
"Alright, let's go."
They moved out, navigating around dead cars and down the ramp onto the highway, this time peddling slow and steady. No one wanted to make extra noise or wear themselves out just in case things went sideways. It seemed an eternity before they finally arrived at the base of the last hill, and dismounted from their bikes.
John grabbed his boxes of homemade firebombs and walked as silently as he could up the hill, leaving the others to wait on his signal before they came the last hundred feet. He moved slowly towards the top of the hill and got his first look at the hoard up close. They were all pressed as tightly together as they could get, with the nearest one less than thirty feet from where he now stood. They completely filled the valley between this hill and the next and spread off in either direction until John thought he might able to walk from one horizon to the other on their backs.
The creatures didn't so much as flinch, so John signalled the others and they came up with him.
The only sound was Brent's sharp intake of breath, but nothing moved. Nothing stirred.
John broke the spell when he hurled a gas-filled can as far as he could to the back of the herd. The can hit with a hollow thunk but nothing moved, not even the Ram he had hit. Heartened by the non-response everyone began throwing as far as they could. The plan was to get as much gas on the far ones as possible, that way when they began throwing the flaming Molotoves the fire would spread quick and hot and engulf the whole horde.
The creatures still didn't move.
As the last can flew the others were already digging their lighters from their pockets and igniting the Molotov cocktails. By this time the odour of spilled gas had mingled grotesquely with the acrid stench of the monsters, plums of black smoke soon drowned out every other smell when the rags at the top of the glass cocktails were lit.
It was over in relatively short order, the glass bottles arched high and shattered on impact, turning their little burning wick into a fiery burst that quickly engulfed the whole lot of them. The fire spread quickly, and if John had to guess he'd say that maybe all that gas hadn't been necessary.
They watched for several minutes as the greatest threat they knew about simply stood there and burned to ash like an army of cardboard cutouts.
"Let's pack up the rest of these Molotoves and get back. I'm getting a bad feeling."
In just a few minutes all of the remaining cases of firebombs were packed into the pull-behind on John's bike, while the rest of the pull behinds were collapsed and stowed into the last remaining pull behind. This way four of the riders were completely unburdened for the ride back.
As they pulled away John looked back over his shoulder and was amazed that the fire wasn't spreading. Just like last time, it was singing the nearest trees and grasses, but it was burning so hot, and creating such an upward draft that the fire couldn't spread outwards before the wind sucked it back to centre. It was absolutely amazing.
"Man, even if we didn't barbecue them all, there's no way that there's enough left to cause us much problem." The normally reserved Adam cheered.
"Yeah, as long as they keep being so stupid and flammable I think we'll be alright."
They had barely made it a few hundred yards when an ear-piercing squeal vibrated the very world around them.
"OHMYGODTHEYRECOMINGFORUS!" Sara was instantly hysterical.
John looked back over his shoulder and was assaulted by the sight of a wave of flaming bodies surging over the hilltop at a dead sprint. It was hard to tell through the flames and smoke, but not one of the flaming monstrosities looked like any of the creatures they had become familiar with.
"Everyone peddle as fast as you can. I'll go ahead and try to prepare a defence at the lookout ahead." Immediately suiting action to command John stood up on the peddles and surged forward, covering ground quickly and endlessly thankful that there weren't as many dead cars clogging this highway. He looked back briefly and saw that the others were peddling hard and outpacing the wave of flaming bodies.
They were quickly lost from sight as John raced towards the eastern lookout tower.
"John?" Brook asked, "Where are the others?"
"Coming." John panted as he climbed the ladder into the tower, "They've evolved or something, and they're coming. Alert Safe Hold and prepare to help us hold them here."
"Done, I sent Drew back for reinforcements as soon as I saw how fast you were moving, I didn't think you'd go that hard without good cause."
"Good, when they come into view try to snipe some of them off. We need to know if they're bulletproof like that damn bird was." John told him, "And try not to pay too much attention, or think too hard about what I'm about to do."
"Can do, but, uh…. What are you going to do."
"Don't worry about it."
John hopped off the platform as Brook took aim through the scope of his rifle.
"Oh, I hope this works." John prayed as he braced his shoulder into a dead car and pushed as hard as he could. At first, nothing happened, then the panel buckled with a thunk. The frame groaned and then tires skidded across asphalt as he began pushing the cars to try to create a funnel.
He worked quickly and with little thought of pacing himself to ensure that he had something left to fight with later on. He was totally spent and only had a few cars pushed into the beginnings of a barricade when he heard Brook shout that he could see the others on their bikes.
"Gotta work faster." John panted. "Neutral. Cars can be shifted to neutral."
He chided himself viciously as he went about breaking windows, opening doors, and pushing cars and trucks around with much more ease than before. He worked quickly and had a rudimentary barricade spanning the width of the roadway by the time Sara, Brent and the others crossed through the only opening he had left, breathing heavily.
"Hopefully this will be enough to funnel them into the centre here." John panted, "but we gotta find some way to keep them from getting around and attacking us from behind, or bypassing us altogether and going after the others."
"When they were following us," Sara panted, "they weren't climbing over the cars, they were just going around them. Even tramping themselves in their haste."
"Well, that's good. Can you guys start pushing cars into the ditch on either side of the road? We need a barricade the can't quickly bypass."
"I need to get some food in me and then I'll be back at it."
John broke into his supply of hearty Survival Sticks and stuck one in his mouth to chew on as he worked. He didn't know if that was an actual name, or just what they called them, but the ground meat, spices, fruit and seasonings were hearty, filling, and packed with energy. He just hoped it would be enough to fuel his healing and magic before the charging monsters got here.
He went on pushing cars around with a Survival Stick hanging from his lip like a cigar, munching on it as he went. The others had completely finished one side of the road and came over to help him before he was half done his side.
CRACK! CRACK! CRACK!
Three shots rang out from Brook on the tower above.
"One confirmed down!" He yelled.
"Keep shooting!" John shouted back, "We gotta hurry guys."
John redoubled his efforts to push a stuck car into place and it tipped up on its side.
"OK, how the hell, John?" Sara asked after the last car was in place.
Brook's gunfire had become a steady serenade of thunder cracks overhead.
"One Kilometre!" He shouted down.
"I'll explain later." John told her, "Right now we got stuff to do."
Sara, Brent, Adam, and Mike stationed themselves behind the barricade, two on either side and prepared their guns. David climbed up the tower to add his own hail of lead to Brooks sharpshooting. Aiming for the legs of those in front, each shot took out at least one monsters leg, and then usually one behind them would trip and go down as well. Sometimes up to four of the beasts would die for each shot taken.
John was impressed. David and Brook had both been hunters before all this. They could shoot, but they weren't warriors. They killed for food, not for sport or fun. But he supposed humans as a species were naturally predisposed for violence and were rather adept at killing. Even the most milquetoast individuals were able to find ways to maximize their effectiveness when killing became absolutely necessary for their continued survival.
For his part, John finished his last Survival Stick and closed his eyes to even his breathing and gather his magic. He didn't know how quickly he would need it, but once the fighting started he was unlikely to have the time to summon and deploy the magic to best effect. When he felt the magic was firmly within his grasp straining to burst forth be drew out his machetes and began pacing back and forth across his chosen battleground, swinging both blades to focus his mind and loosen his muscles.
Sara and Brent opened up from the barricade, adding their own thunder cracks to the death song that David and Brook were already singing, followed closely by Adam and Mike.
"Oh, how I wish you were Day Break and Night Fall." He wished for the twin blades that he had had specially forged for his character within the Digital. back when there still was a Digital. The creatures were so close now that he could have thrown rocks and hit them.
He closed his eyes to take a few steadying breaths and when he opened them the world was crawling by as though suspended in molasses. He couldn't see individual bullets, but the crack of gunfire was slowed and elongated and he could see the creature's legs buckle and spew blood as they tripped their comrades and were trampled under the rest. No way would the seven of them be enough to stop this here. At best they could buy a moment or two more for Safe Hold to prepare itself.
A slow whoosh of fire came from behind him and a Molotov cocktail soared overhead. The bottle shattered on the ground and fire spread out before the beasts who ran through it completely unfazed. Another followed and broke on a monsters head, this one spreading fire to a handful of the creatures and slowing them down enough to be trampled.
"I got here as quick as I could." Someone shouted, "The others are on their way."
The battle trance used to frighten John. The world and everything in it crawling in slow-motion gave him more time to observe what was happening and made him feel like he was in a nightmare, where his body just couldn't move fast enough. But like anything else repeated exposure allowed him to become accustomed to the sensation, and to understand that his body was still operating to the maximum of its capabilities. It's just that his mind was going faster and was then able to see more and react quicker.
These creatures seemed heartier than the others had been, he didn't think that just hack and slash would cut it.
The gunfire faded into the background as his focus shifted entirely to the monsters before him. John launched forward as a single blade sliced an arc through an arm and a neck; Charging Boar. From there creatures fell to flashing steel as Striking Scorpion flowed into Heron Takes Flight.
Blood splashed on his face, but it was warm and sticky and it didn't burn him as the other creatures had. He ducked under a swipe and slashed through a pale, sinewy abdomen with Shooting Star. Twin blades flashed Crescent Moon Reflected on Still Lake and two more fell.
The press of creatures was getting worse as the main body of the charge arrived and he pushed himself faster. Flowing through the forms, gliding between falling enemies, blades flashing faster and faster as Eagle Spreads Its Wings became The Courtier Closes Her Fan and Rampaging Mare flowed effortlessly into Minnow Darts Between The Rushes.
Suddenly he had no more enemies to kill. It was impossible to guess how long he had been Dancing the Forms but his breath came in great gasps and his head whipped frantically from side to side, the battle trance still slowing the world to a crawl.
Almost fifty people had joined those at the barricade, while more were running up. Others lined the edges of the bridge and were raining lead death on those creatures that were forced below. A creature rushed him and he simply batted it away, cleanly slicing head from shoulders.
Something was wrong, they didn't have enough fighters to completely stop the monster's advance. It was then that he noticed a hole opening up in the right flank of the monsters, as though they were being rapidly picked off from the side, but that couldn't be right.
All of a sudden the storm of gunfire behind him slackened off as men reloaded their weapons, the creatures rushed forward, though not as thick as before as something was definitely dividing them. Diving Hawk flowed effortlessly into Wolf Bites Haunches followed by contemptuous slashes as the attackers thinned out.
It was then that John noticed a firing line of probably thirty camouflaged men off to his left, a steady crescendo of thunder-cracks as they operated with calm professionalism. One shot, one kill, the steady hail of gunfire never letting up as the staggered firing pattern meant that they didn't all have to reload at the same time.
At the last second, he heard a piercing whistle before an explosion shot a gout of earth skyward out of a field about twenty meters from the nearest enemies. Two more explosions walked closer, and then four after that tore shrapnel, fire, and concussion through the horde.
"Artillery?" John asked the roar of battle, "Where the hell did soldiers come from?"
"John, get back here!" Someone yelled.
The line at the barricade was almost totally silent now, just the odd gunshot as they picked off the remaining stragglers on the bridge. There was still a seemingly endless mass of monsters down the way, but they were currently tied up by the soldiers and artillery. Those men from Safe Hold that lined the edges of the bridge were still firing down into the thinning crowd of monsters below.
For all of his heavy breathing, John had yet to expend any magic and felt amazing for it. His lungs burned, but his body hummed with the power that raced through his veins. He didn't feel at all like he had created a semi-circle of piled bodies with nothing but two swords and some effort.
Suddenly John's gaze was drawn, like iron to a magnet, to a monster that stood head and shoulders above the rest. The creature had a weird feeling about it. If John didn't know better he would say that he could feel the little heartbeat of magic.
As though to confirm his suspicion it raised a single hand and a pulse of blinding light pierced the very air. When his vision returned he could see that all of the dead monsters were slowly unravelling into ash that floated through the still air. The dark haze piled knee-high, and then waist-high and then flowed like it was alive.
In moments the bridge was totally devoid of all signs of the dead monsters, it stood as a pristine island amid a sea of black roiling clouds. A billow lit up like lightning had flashed and they soon stood amid a sea of storm clouds.
"That can't be good." Someone behind John guessed aloud.
The world was silenced by a screech that literally shook the bridge and a dark shape shot skywards blotting out the sunlight, trailing the storm clouds behind it as they tried of their own accord to be absorbed into the giant shape.
The panic was immediate as cries of 'dragon' went up amongst the men and women from Safe Hold. John watched in stunned disbelief as the dragon circled in the sky overhead. It glinted like steel and he suddenly noticed that the cars that had comprised their barricades looked to have been eaten away by acid.
He could hear the whistle of incoming artillery but the creature dove out of the sky as three explosions detonated on it's back, not so much as staggering it.
The soldiers were the first to recover, resetting their firing line and opening up a hail of gunfire on the monsters. Bodies fell, like dominoes opening a clear line to the taller creature and the dragon dropped down between them and roared crimson fire at them. The soldiers dove to the ground and the great breath of fire curved around, as though an invisible dome had stopped it.
What remained of the horde gathered itself tightly around the tallest monster, surging forward to put the most bodies possible between it and the gunfire. The dragon launched skyward and intercepted three more artillery shells as it circled overhead. The soldiers righted themselves as one man brought a rocket launcher to bear, loosing a steel-tipped lance into the monsters who surged forward to sacrifice themselves on the rocket.
The dragon plummeted from the sky and landed heavily as the soldiers changed to grenade launchers. It hunched down over the leader, squishing many of the lesser ones in the process, and used it's body to create a protective living steel dome.
"They're all sacrificing themselves to protect the big one." John realized.
Three more artillery shells exploded harmlessly around the steel dragon as it blanketed the area in crimson flames.
"Brent!" John shouted, running towards the barricades, "I need to circle around to try to kill the big one. Give me about a minute and then open fire. Make sure they don't notice me circling around behind them."
"Got it." Brent turned and went about organizing everyone and John leaped off the side of the bridge and sprinted as fast as he could to circle wide and come up behind the monsters. Their numbers were greatly reduced but there were still thousands of them gathered in a tight bunch around the dragon.
It was massive and growing bigger, it seemed that whenever a creature died it dissolved and was added to the beast. Each of its wings had to be at least a hundred feet from base to tip, and it's slender, four-legged body stood tall enough that a man could walk under it with ease. It's tail snaked back and forth like a barbed whip and its slender neck glowed as fire shot from its mouth with each angry roar.
Brent finally got the men from Safe Hold organized and they opened fire on the mass of creatures who, in response, surged forward to offer the most bodies between their leader than the bullets. Even with two fronts hailing lead at them, the rear flank was still pretty thick with bodies, though none of them were looking his way.
The world slowed down again as John sprinted with everything he had. He closed the gap quickly and the magic sang through his veins and danced on his fingers. He thrust his hands forward with each stride and something beyond fire sprang forth. A shimmer like distorted reality arced forth, again and again impacting the horde of milling, sacrificial bodies. Artillery shells continued to volley down and they didn't even realize they were under attack from the rear until John was almost into the gap he had opened.
Then it was too late. One last volley cleared his way to the leader and it turned with surprise stamped all over its featureless face. One last blast staggered it and he barely threw himself into a roll in time to miss being struck by the thrashing steel tail.
Machetes sang out as he rose from his dive. His blade swung true and the creature was off balance, but somehow it managed to block his deadly blow with an armour-hard forearm.
Even though he was rattled by the unexpected block, Crescent Moon Rises Over The Lake flowed seamlessly into Moon Reflected On Still Waters. Again the creature moved with impossible dexterity as it jerked its leg out of the way. It recovered it's compromised balance with an impossible roll somehow managing to avoid Chain Lightning In The Clouds.
It sprang to its feet and charged John with a wordless snarl on its featureless face, clashing steel-hard forearms with steel machete blades. John's magic lashed out in torrents, almost of its own accord, and even though he was pressing as hard as he could, he didn't seem able to gain an advantage. And worse, he could feel himself tiring.
The steel dragon they fought beneath continued to blow fire and absorb artillery shells as it stomped and shuffled around to keep the two of them protected by its steel bulk.
Finally, John managed to sink his blade into the creature's side after a lash of magic tripped it up. Even though he scored a direct blow, the creature wasn't even fazed and caught John clean on the side of the head with a hard backhand slap.
Stars exploded in his vision and gravity seemed to vanish as he tumbled end over end. His ears were ringing hard and his vision slid in and out of focus, somehow he rolled away from a stomping dragon foot.
He healed quickly, but his magic was pretty well spent, and he knew that it wouldn't be much longer before he was unable to heal or fight again.
He rolled away from another dragon stomp and would have been wide open for a furious thrashing if not for the arrival of a large man arcing electricity. He caught the big monster from behind and bear-hugged hard about its middle. The monster swung and thrashed but its fluid movements seemed somehow stiff and clumsy.
"JOHN KILL IT!" He gritted through what sounded like incredible strain.
He could smell flesh burning and rushed as fast as he could to get a blade into the monster. This time it roared with agony that rippled through the whole horde and again when John landed another blow, this one severing an arm above the elbow. Suddenly the creature was much more fragile than it had been and John picked it apart in only a handful of swipes.
The dragon staggered drunkenly and when their leader died, every remaining beast turned to ash.
The dragon collapsed and the resulting tremor stole the last of his strength and brought him to his knees. Sounds were fading in and out, and his eyes couldn't decide how to focus properly. The man that had helped him came rushing over but it was hard to get a fix on his face. He thought maybe the man was talking but it was hard to make out.