Death comes for us all in the end. Turn and make it tremble to call your name.”
As Valeo crouched outside the Magistrate’s estate, Breeze ran for her life, naked feet slapping the pavement. Half a dozen of those things, a dark and ghastly tide, were heavy on her heels.
The creatures moved like twilight. At a distance they looked almost human, but the similarities ended there. Twisted and vile, they were starved nightmares cornering their dreamer at long last. Some staggered upright. Others loped along on all fours like wild animals. She had no word for them. They would kill her whether she knew their names or not. One mistake, a single wrong turn . . . if they caught up, her dress would provide about as much protection from their gruesome claws as damp tissue paper.
Breeze flew down side alleys, taking streets at random. Several frantic minutes later, she dared glance over her shoulder. The street behind was utterly deserted. She slowed to a stop, skin crawling.
Where did they go?
The only sounds were the flicker of flames or quickly stifled screams. She scurried into the sidelines, flitting from shadow to shadow as only she could. Nerves tight and thrumming, drenched in sweat, Breeze fought against an almost entirely alien sensation . . .
Eyes roving from every crevice to corridor, She imagined the nightmares around every turn. For the first time in memory, her fury wasn’t winning, didn’t beg her to turn and fight. She never wanted to flee so badly.
Seldom do we find our desires.
The sound of moonlight. A glint of warning. Steel fed by flames. Breeze threw herself backward, the Fallen’s sword missing her by millimeters. Keeping her momentum, she tucked into a reverse roll and sprang back to her feet. In an instant, five more monsters surged in. Breeze sprinted down the only alley they hadn’t blocked, not daring to look back.
Whether by smell, sound, or some other sense she didn’t dare acknowledge, it seemed she couldn’t shake the wretches. The only course was to stay one step ahead—a feat she was hard pressed to keep.
The state of the city as it blurred by was no better than the villa: Windows shattered, hunks of wood littering the stones like dead leaves. Doors lay in mangled heaps and houses that had stood a hundred years were now crumbling husks. She flew past a group of fleeing townsfolk. She hoped they could get away but deep down she knew. They were doomed.
It will slow them down.
She blanched in disgust, but the raw sweat and coils part of the brain, the part caring only for its own survival, embraced the thought. Feet going numb, arms pumping like ship pistons, she said a silent prayer as the townsfolk’s screams fed the night.
The anger surged inside her, clawing its way past her terror. With a brick wall of will, she forced it down, feet faltering for half an instant as her body tried to turn and fight. She dug her fingers into her palms, drawing blood, trying to quell the inferno begging to be unleashed.
Not now, please not now!
Fury was simply misery before everything burns down. Her life’s little litany.
She couldn’t stop. She couldn’t win. With each passing stride rage and hopelessness welled in tandem.
She hadn’t wanted to leave Valeo, but there had been no choice. The moment Drake fired, the whole foyer had ignited. Luck had never been hers as it was Valeo’s. The last of the creatures had spotted her, terrifying silver eyes promising death. Her choice had been flee or be slaughtered where she stood. The last she’d seen of her childhood companion, he was fleeing for his life as surely as she was.
Get to the lighthouse.
Her lungs burned, feet growing raw from uneven stones. Thick calluses held the worst at bay, consolation prizes for most of a life without shoes. She pushed on even faster. She knew they were still coming.
She turned a bend in the road and skidded to a halt. Dozens of bodies lined the courtyard, silent screams still etched upon horrified faces. The shadows between corpses teemed with Fallen. A phantom on the wind, Breeze squeezed between two, aiming for a connecting street. Only a few strides and she would be free.
But again, fortune fell flat. A creature leapt into her path, not understanding the fury it had found. Brielle Oshikari was cornered, angry, and terrified. She was a waif, with nothing to defend herself but the sparkles on her dress, facing a two-hundred-pound nightmare of wicked claws and blades built only for killing.
It never had a chance.
As the monster reached for her, Breeze snapped a single chord holding her rage. Lowering her head, she ploughed into the Fallen, caving its ribcage. As she flung it over her shoulder, filthy claws raked her skin, but Breeze tore free and was gone.
Vision blurring, she pelted down streets she had grown up in. Each turn and stone greeted her like old friends, allowing her to keep ahead of the dogged pursuit. In those desperate moments, her knowledge of the city was the only reason she was still alive.
With a rush of relief warming her sore legs, she saw the lighthouse looming above her in the darkness.
Towering two hundred feet above the town, made of thick white stone blocks, the lighthouse was a beacon for Heartstone. She pressed palms into its familiar stone base as the creeping at her neck reached a crescendo. On impulse, she turned around.
Fifty monsters waited, cutting off every means of escape.
Valeo scaled the next building, running along rooftops. Below, the streets were madness. People ran every which way, trailing half an outfit, missing a shoe, torn from sleep as their world began to crumble. He tried in vain to shut out the shrieks along the cobbled thoroughfares, telling himself that those people were beyond his help.
It didn’t soothe him in the slightest. They might be people he knew, people he saw every day. He thought of his grandfather Jakk, his gruff, awkward half hugs, the smiles of vendors he had known all his life. Again, how had this happened?
Had he been what brought them here? Ridiculous, but he couldn’t shake the memory of those things smiling at him. Why? He had no answers, but he was damn sure going to get some.
Jaw clenched, he picked up the pace. Drake’s gifted sword flapped awkwardly, becoming more of a nuisance with every stride. Thinking quickly, he placed the scabbard at the small of his back, wound his leather belt tightly around it, and cinched the rest around his waist. He took off again, springing away before the Fallen below had time to find him out.
Valeo went to his own house first. Breeze might, at that very moment, be in dire need, but he couldn’t leave the old man to die alone. He skittered to a halt above his trapdoor in the roof, flinging it wide, and dove down into the depths of his bedroom, catching a rope and smashing to the floor. He threw open his door and ran to the old man’s bedroom—a mass of tangled sheets in an empty bed. Valeo’s heart jumped into his throat. Cold sweat slicked the nape of his neck.
“Down here, boy.”
Valeo sprinted down the stairs four at a time. Hooking the post at the bottom, he swung himself into the gloomy engine shop. His grandfather was behind the counter, antique gun collection placed tenderly around him. The crotchety old bugger looked frightening indeed with his furry arms and bulging belly, surrounded by old rifles and a plethora of machine parts. Before Valeo could breathe relief, a cold chill crept in; No gun could stop those things.
“Gotta go, Jakk,” Valeo whispered.
“Aye?” Jakk barked, a cigarette jammed between his lips. “Leave?” He settled into his chair. “Ain’t goin’ nowhere.”
Valeo shook his head, slamming his fist on the counter. “Don’t have time for this, you stubborn boar. We can’t stay here.” Valeo began to shake.
Jakk shook his head, forever obstinate.
Valeo stared at his grandfather for a long moment, pity and anger fighting for control. “Don’t you get it? Don’t you know what’s out there?”
“’Course I know, ya dunce. Ya think I’m just shinin’ these?” He indicated the guns in front of him.
Valeo almost laughed, despite everything. He had never gotten the crusty old bag to do anything. Why had he expected different now?
“Then you’ll die, fool,” Valeo growled. His eyes grew wet, flashing blue in the moonlight.
“Aye.” Jakk’s leathery face crinkled into a grim frown. “But I’ll be takin’ a few of them bastards with me.”
Valeo nodded. “Staying too, then. Right here beside you,” he whispered. “You’re all the family left.”
“No!” Jakk roared, leaping to his feet. “Get gone outta here, boy. Get to a ship. Get to Drake.”
Valeo chuckled, sputtering past the tears. “You even know Drake? Oh, Fayting brilliant. Does everyone know more about me than me?”
Jakk shook his head and gave a snort. “Boy, if ya’d stop thinkin’ ya know everythin’, maybe you’d learn somethin’.”
The room went silent. An old clock’s ticking kept track of the seconds as they shattered.
“Can’t leave you,” Valeo whispered. “Who’s gonna help you break down engine blocks? Whistle harmony?”
“Ain’t got no choice.” Jakk coughed to cover up his own sobs. “It’s here they’re comin’. It’s you they want. Always has been. Only ever been a matter of time. I can’t get away, but if anyone ever could, it’d be you. Now GO!” he bellowed, the corners of his eyes brimming.
“We can go together. We’ll get away,” began Valeo, the words ringing hollow even in his own ears. “Can’t just let you die.” He bit his tongue so hard he tasted copper.
Jakk sighed. “We’re all gonna die, boy. Nothin’ flyin’ over the skies can change that. Only thing we got is choosin’ how to live until we do.” He gave a wan smile, almost covering up the fear in his eyes. Almost.
Valeo reached forward, squeezing the old man’s shoulder, so much like a gnarled tree root.
“Stay alive, you stubborn mule,” he choked out.
“Doin’ the best I can, you stupid, reckless shit,” Jakk shot back. “Do me a favor though.” He pulled the hat from around his ears and worried it in his hands. “Find yer mum. Tell her”—he cleared his throat—“tell her I’m sorry for what I did. Sorry for everythin’.” He coughed again, scratching at his eyes.
“And take care of yourself, boy. Despite everythin’, that’s all I ever tried to do.” His eyes were glazed and distant. He blinked rapidly a few times, then nodded farewell.
Valeo didn’t say a word. He took one last look at his grandfather, busy lighting another cigarette to cover the tears running down his ruddy cheeks, and ran back into his room. Each step tore his heart apart.
He’d been in the house less than five minutes, but time poured fast through his fingers. He paused to looked around the familiar space, not knowing if he would ever see it again. Nodding to himself, he turned to the trapdoor, to the lighthouse, to Breeze, to life as a Corsair, to the wide skies and adventures he had always yearned for. But now, looking at the mess he was leaving behind, the price was almost too much to bear.
Valeo peered at the darkened landing. He thought about going back down, about dragging the old man, moaning every step of the way, to safety. He thought about throwing his arms around the old wart, pulling him close. If he did, he’d never let go. He thought about so many things in that moment, events that had come to pass, all the stories that should have, and all those things that now never would. He sobbed silently to himself, face falling into hands he could no longer see.
Valeo never went back downstairs, never said farewell to his grandfather; but he heard the glass shatter and the first volley of gunfire, even as he slammed the hatch shut behind him.
Valeo made it to the lighthouse without incident, springing up the stones, anxious to find Breeze. This tower had ever been their meeting spot, and his hands found the familiar holds with ease.
As he reached the halfway point, the dark city skyline ablaze with light from the fires, someone screamed. A great commotion erupted from the opposite side of the tower, but he was in no position to see what it was about.
He thumbed the warmth in his heart, his luck. All his life, random bouts of fortune found Valeo—a sudden gust of wind, a guard looking the wrong way—always followed by sudden heat in his chest. Burning chances. Trouble was, he’d never been able to control it, just random flares when it mattered most.
It mattered now.
The scorching heat bloomed within him. Those next few moments, Valeo forgot all his worries. He nearly flew up the side of the lighthouse, slipping more than once but laughing all the while.
He crested the lip and pulled himself up with a final grunt, nearly falling two hundred feet to the stones below. He sprinted toward the lighthouse’s crescent-shaped bulb, and slid the last few feet on his knees.
He had to get it lit.
He ripped the back panel open and had the wires switched over in seconds. Bright beams of light cut through the darkness for miles as the bulb whirred to life. He looked up. In the distance, dozens of ships floated in the dark skies, several of them aflame.
“Hurry up, Drake,” Valeo mumbled, biting his lip.
Digging in the hollow under the wires, Valeo dug out a packed rucksack, a bow, and a pair of quivers.
Emergency stash indeed.
There was another great clatter, and Valeo scrambled to peer over the edge.
Breeze climbed as fast as she could toward him, streaked with blood and sweat. She wasn’t alone. A horde of Fallen were in fast pursuit, crawling up the sheer stones like spiders.
“Breeze!” Valeo shouted before he could help himself. Immense relief filled her smoke-covered face, short lived as dozens of luminescent eyes merged on her. She would never make it. One misstep, one tug at her dress, and she would surely fall.
Valeo dumped the stash, everything but the bow, throwing a quiver over his shoulder. Hundreds of glowing eyes peered up at him through the darkness. The lighthouse was drawing them in like a dinner bell.
We’re unequivocally screwed.
Valeo swallowed hard and ran back to Breeze. Halfway up, grim determination chiseled her features.
He took a deep breath and drew the bow awkwardly to his cheek, aiming straight down toward the closest Fallen under her. He didn’t hesitate.
Breeze gave a yelp of surprise as the arrow glanced her shoulder, blowing past both her and Valeo’s intended target to the stones below. Demons nearly upon her, Breeze still paused long enough to give Valeo a withering look of disdain.
He winced and notched another arrow.
“Always looks so easy when you do it,” he shouted.
Reacting on instinct, he reached for his luck and let it burst through his chest down to his fingertips. His vision wavered, suddenly exhausted; with so much adrenaline coursing through him, it hardly made a difference.
Suddenly he knew he could hit every one of those monsters right between the eyes. Luck singing through his limbs, he fired again.
Not quite the eyes, but the arrow struck the Fallen’s collarbone, knocking it loose. It slammed into two more below, and all three plummeted to the ground in eerie silence. Beside them, another slipped unexpectedly, following its fallen brethren.
Again, and again, Valeo fired, sending more monsters to the stones.
When the coast was clear under Breeze, Valeo turned and jogged to the other edges of the tower, already knowing what he’d find.
Lead weights dropped into his gut. Fallen swarmed up every side of the tower like roaches. He drew the bowstring back, cutting his cheek with a fingernail, and let the arrows fly back and forth, trying to stem the tide. Luck ebbed and his aim began to falter. It mattered little. There were too many to miss.
Valeo searched the sky for a ship as the bright crescent beams flashed. Nothing. Cursing, he loosened the sword on his back, wishing he knew how to use the damn thing.
Shale crunched behind him and Valeo rounded, thinking one of the beasts had made it up. Breeze, clothed in filthy tatters. Without a word, he tossed her the bow and final quiver.
“Get to work.”
Breeze crested the tower’s lip, launching shot after shot at the tidal wave of shadow. Hundreds swarmed the tower in utter, terrifying silence.
She spun to change sides, nearly colliding with Valeo, forced into an ungainly pirouette to avoid crashing into him. As they both recovered, Valeo burst out laughing.
Breeze chanced a glance at him, wondering if he had gone completely mad. He just kept right on laughing, throwing chunks of shale at terrifying faces.
“Breeze!” Valeo struggled to stifle his chuckles, “we got that dance after all!”
His mirth boomed again. If he had lost his mind, he wasn’t alone. Breeze’s tinkling laugh soon joined in.
Together, death’s fingers at their throats, they laughed. Nothing in the world could have been less funny, and yet here they were, howling at the tops of their lungs.
A dark head poked over the edge, its too-wide mouth twisted into a grotesque leer. Breeze fired her final arrow into its face. The missile didn’t dislodge the Fallen, but it wasn’t supposed to.
Breeze kicked out, bare foot blasting the Fallen into the sky. It was instantly replaced by another. Valeo cut that one down.
“Breeze, we need a plan!” Valeo shouted abruptly, still hacking at fingers and faces.
Breeze peered over the edge and stifled a gasp. They had already lost. It was only a matter of time.
Unless . . .
Breeze grew suddenly still. A dark glower replaced her fear, her jaw tightening like cold steel.
Valeo turned to her then, confused. Dozens of spindly hands gained the lips on every side. “Breeze?”
Breeze fed the fury. The shackles always so carefully held in check, snapped one by one until boiling inferno replaced blood. Her father’s voice ignited.
You’re worthless. Nothing. RageGlass!
Her violet eyes flared in the moonlight. Suddenly, there was something much greater to fear on that tower than mere monsters. Valeo leapt away from her, slashing like mad, happily willing to take his chances with the horde.
Breeze threw her bow to the side as the growl escaped her lips. She turned away from Valeo, wanting to keep him out of sight as the tremors swelled. Her body shook violently and she threw her head back, roaring into the night.
The tremors ceased. She fell still. Fallen surrounded her. A clawed hand reached for her tattered dress.
Right before filthy fingers made contact, Breeze exploded into motion. The creature hurtled off the side of the lighthouse, body shattered. She wove avalanche and deadly grace, launching Fallen off the tower like paper clouds. Their slashing blades found nothing but air the instant before she found them.
Luck was Valeo’s verse. Rage was Breeze’s song.
Within seconds, only two creatures remained on the roof. They fanned out, flanking their dangerous prey. Breeze crouched down, chest heaving, hair flipped around her face and features bestial. She ducked a cut, a resounding crack echoing through the night as the Fallen’s head snapped back on a broken neck, body spinning away into the darkness.
The remaining creature sliced down at Breeze’s exposed throat. Valeo cried out, busy keeping more from gaining a hold.
The blade struck her palm as if it were stone. She slammed her skull into the Fallen’s nose and tore its weapon free from its suddenly limp grip.
Hand dripping blood, she flipped the sword end over end, caught it by the handle, and rushed to join Valeo. Together, they tried to stem the flow thick as smoke, dodging blows all around. There was no way to keep this pace. One slip, one false turn of the blade, and one of them would die.
In unison, just as they overwhelmed their prey, the Fallen grew still. Valeo whirled around, blade dipping a fraction of an inch. Breeze cared less for sense, knocking four more from the roof in seconds. None of the creatures so much as twitched.
Movement near the tower’s edge. A gnashing wet sound that turned their stomachs. The Fallen parted as something else walked through their ranks . . . a grotesque form of a man, pale as bone with shards for teeth—the gnashing sound revealed as its jaw worked, tearing deep into its own gums. That thing from the foyer.
Breeze slowed, the flaring fury in her eyes stemmed. The pair huddled together, swords held out. The thing stared at Valeo, opening its mouth, a torrent of blood flooded down.
“You look just like your mother.”
Crimson drowned Breeze’s vision. She flung her sword at the thing’s face. It battered the weapon aside at the final instant.
I’ll tear you limb from limb before you touch him.
She bent to pounce, Valeo trying to hold her back.
A ship engine roared.
Never had a sound been so beautiful. A brig hurtled through the air at full tilt, sails billowing through the gloom. Drake and the crew dashed about the deck, tugging sails and firing shots. The pilot looped the ship alongside the lighthouse with pinpoint precision, snapping through tower support cables as she went.
The lighthouse rumbled and swayed. Fallen near the edge tumbled away into the darkness.
“Breeze, let’s go!”
Valeo scooped up the rucksack and grabbed Breeze’s wrist, tugging her along in his wake. Claws and swords slashed out but were knocked back by gunfire.
Valeo and Breeze leapt off the tower, arms pinwheeling even as the ship’s engine accelerated. Clipping the railing, they both tumbled to the deck in a sprawling heap. As the ship lurched away, dozens of Fallen clawed after them, dropping into empty space.
Valeo and Breeze scrambled to their feet and looked at the shining lighthouse, now black with swarming bodies. Somehow still recognizable through the mass, the white-clad nightmare stood center, eyes starving after them. Even over the den, Breeze could make out the creature’s final words:
“We’ll never stop coming for you.”
A terrible, yearning cry pierced the skies as the Judy broke through the clouds and sailed away into the night.