Beautiful Experiment

Chapter 18

The sound of the rails had faded to the back of Manuela’s consciousness as she listened to Leon. The man was holding the magnum they had found, and was explaining how to use it. “Ammo for these things is hard to find, so only use them on big enemies. Plus they take forever to load, even if you’re skilled. This one seems to have a hinge too.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means that you can load it a lot quicker if you’re good at it. Watch,” he commanded. He flicked the weapon down, and the barrel and chambers swung down, running parallel to his arm. With a slower, but still smooth motion, he brought the weapon back, dumping the bullets onto the seat with gravity, while grabbing a handful from the case. Flicking it back forward, he jammed each one in skillfully, turning it after each bullet before flicking the whole thing back up, where it clicked together to its firing position.

Manuela was astonished. The whole motion had been so fluid that it seemed simple but she doubted she could repeat the action. “I think you should keep that one. I’ll stick with my weapons.”

“In that case, you should take the rifle. It has more firepower than either your pistol or your machine gun, so it’ll be a bit more useful against tougher enemies.” Manuela nodded as Leon unslung the rifle from his back, handing it to her along with the ammo. She checked over the gun once before slinging it on her back. A silence hung over them as the cart moved along the rail through the dark passage.

Leon looked over at the seat opposite them, where Ashley had fallen asleep. She wasn’t used to stress like them, he reflected. He was surprised she could sleep at all after all that had occurred.

“She’s been through a lot.” Leon nodded in agreement, and his hand went absently to the pill bottle in his pocket. Manuela caught the motion. “You did take yours right?”

Leon nodded, slipping it out, slowly turning it over in his hand. The little pills inside rattled around, and Leon could see they had already gone through a few of the meager supply. They wouldn’t be able to suppress the growth of the parasites for more than a day or two more, and then it would be a matter of time before they embedded in the spine. His grip tightened on the bottle at the thought. “Ashley is our main objective. She comes first. We start running out…”

“We won’t. We’ll be out of here before then,” Manuela insisted. Leon nodded, but didn’t say anything. Staring ahead, he noticed an approaching light and pulled out his handgun. They rushed into the light and the cart slowed. It only took a moment to adjust his eyes. They were in a stone room similar to the one where they hopped into the cart. It looked so similar in fact that he briefly wondered if they’d looped somewhere. Gently, Manuela shook Ashley’s shoulder. “Wake up. We have to keep moving.”

Ashley nodded, groggily standing. Gently, Manulea helped guide her off the cart. Once she was awake, they moved to the door, taking up opposite sides. With a nod, Leon kicked in the door, and the two agents entered, only to realize they had returned to the first room of the castle.

“Why are we back here?”

Leon ignored the question, holstering his gun. He moved to stand in front of the wall that had come up when they first entered the castle. Once again, he inspected the portrait chiseled onto it. The knight was still there, lance held high. He seemed to recall some legend about something similar, and the large section on the right side of the slab featured an indentation that made him think there was more to it.

“Manuela, you picked up a stone slab in the Dragon Room. May I see it again?”

Withdrawing the stone from her pack, Manuela handed it to him with a confused expression. Regarding it for a moment, Leon gauged its shape and size, before reaching up, carefully sliding it into the indentation, where it fit perfectly. Quickly, he retrieved the other two pieces they had gotten, and slid them in as well, forming the stone image of the mythical chimaera. Some unseen trigger must have activated, for the wall slid downwards, revealing a path behind the slab.

Manuela looked over to Leon, and she felt something she couldn’t quite place. She respected him, and his ability to think through any situation. He had saved her countless times during Operation Javier, and even with her ability to fight, he had saved her during this mission as well. He had survived one of the most horrible events of recent history and remained positive despite it, and even dedicated himself to resolving events similar to it. And yet, it was a different feeling that was produced within her.

Just the small angle of his smile when he solved a puzzle, the determined look as he defended her and Ashley, they moved her more deeply than any action he had done so far. The hopeful expression he had when he had her try on the gauntlets was surprisingly similar to when he had gotten her those art supplies. So, as she followed him down yet another dark hallway to potential danger, she only felt safe with him by her side.

Leon was glad he’d asked Ashley to stay back in the hallway. As the gate slammed down, and the panels in the points of the room spun to reveal armour, he knew this would have been a lot harder with her following him. Somehow, he doubted that his pistol would do much to them, regardless of how upgraded it was. Whilst the armour suits spurred to life, he unslung his shotgun, and at the same time, Manuela pulled out her rifle.

“What do we do?” Manuela asked as the suits raised up their swords, marching towards them. Leon spread his stance, balancing carefully.

“Wait for them to swing, then duck under the blade. Get behind one. I doubt they can function much backwards.” Manuela nodded in confirmation, mimicking Leon’s stance. The first one to swing targeted Leon, and he threw himself under the thing’s legs with a grunt. Rolling to a stand, he planted the tip of the barrel right against the back of its breastplate. Without hesitation, he pulled the trigger, filling the parasite inside with shrapnel. The armour collapsed, and he knew he’d fatally damaged it. Turning his attention, he saw that Manuela had killed one as well, with the third one approaching him. He pumped the shotgun quickly, firing a shot into the thing, which stopped it for a moment. He fired another shot, quickly ending it.

The wave didn’t end there, as the pillars swung back around. Behind the stone, metal could be heard, and Leon took the moment to reload his shotgun. He didn’t have many shells left. The close quarters of the castle had caused him to resort to it more than he would have liked. It only got worse when three armour suits appeared, pure black in design and armed with halberds. Different coloured enemies were never fun, and these ones had more reach than the sword bearers.

Leon dashed off to the left, attempting to draw the leftmost armour closer to the wall. There was too little room in the center, so he had to make room. The enemies didn’t seem to smart, and the armour pursued him. It didn’t even move to intercept him, but it would make getting to its back that much harder. They didn’t do any overhead swings that left them paused for a moment either.

Leon feinted right, then ducked under the blade, swinging his shotgun up. Firing into the thing’s left side, he stumbled a little from the recoil, but it didn’t matter, as the creature fell forward. He almost turned to engage the next one when the armour began getting back up. Its helmet burst off violently, and a plaga burst forth. It was one of the Head Hunters. Hurriedly, Leon put some distance between him and it as it stood to full height. He raised up his shotgun to block a swing that came at unexpected speed.

The thing bore down as the tendril-like head began extending, reeling back for a strike. In a quick motion, Leon unclipped a flash grenade and let it fall, pushing back against the lock. He tucked into a back handspring, throwing up his arms as he hopped to a halt, just as the flash went off. The armour collapsed with a hiss, crumbling into antiquity.

Looking over, he saw Manuela frantically dodging the two other suits. The slow moving suits had managed to corner her with their reach, and when she tried to move passed one, the other forced her back. Re-equipping his shotgun, Leon raced over, pumping shots into the leftmost one, felling it before it could even burst. He turned to kill the other one, but as he fired to finish it, the gun clicked, and the armour burst its parasite.

Leon could feel everything slow down. He tossed aside the shotgun as he ran, and he could feel his muscles burn with exertion. The parasite began to arc back, aiming for Manuela, who had stumbled from a sweep to the legs. Mid run, Leon picked up the fallen knight’s halberd. The unusual weight in his hands mattered little in his adrenaline fueled state. He could track the slow arc of the blade that synced almost perfectly with the movement of the parasite as it lurched forward to end Manuela. With a yell, Leon brought the blade down, severing the muscular flesh moments before it reached Manuela, and the head of the beast continued, skipping off the floor before landing in a violently wriggling pile. Taking the halberd in both hands tightly, he drove the sharp tip straight through a node on its center, and after a twitch, it ceased squirming.

Breathing heavily, Leon let go of the weapon, letting it fall to the ground with a dull clatter.The still standing armour stumbled at the loss of its direction before collapsing to its knees. Vengefully, Leon planted a solid kick into its chest, causing the whole thing to fly apart as the parasite inside was unable to hold the mass together. Both of them looked up when they heard the grating over the door lift. The sound also lifted the tense silence. With a sigh, Leon helped Manuela up, checking her over for wounds. “You okay?”

“Yeah, they only managed to hit me with the wooden shaft. I would have been a lot worse if that thing had got me. You okay?”

“Not going to be running any marathons anytime soon, but otherwise I’m fine.” With a grunt, Leon scooped his shotgun back up, slinging it over his back again. “Better hope the Merchant hasn’t packed up his stuff yet. I’m out of shotgun ammo.”

“I’m running low on rifle ammo too. And the enemies aren’t easy to engage close up.” Leon nodded, though neither said anything more as they returned to Ashley, who looked a little shaken at the scene that had occurred.

“We’re going to head back to The Merchant to pick up some stuff,” Leon explained. He had noticed that Ashley was a lot calmer when she knew what they were doing. In most situations he’d been in, the escortee almost never wanted to know anything. Ashley nodded, a little bit of the edge coming off her expression.

Manuela’s heart dropped as she witnessed the scene in slow motion. They had just encountered Salazar again, and he had Ashley with him. His bodyguards held her at spear point, so they hadn’t been able to approach him. She saw Salazar’s hand go for a button and she tried to move out of the way, but both she and Leon had felt the floor slide out from under them.

She could see the world tilt uncontrollably as she tried to level out. Below her, she could see Leon, who had managed to turn so his back was facing down. Below them, she could see sharp, jagged spikes. One of them was already occupied by a body, long since abandoned. Leon reached for his belt, aiming a device quickly. A whizzing passed by Manuela and she found herself suddenly halted.

Leon grunted under the strain of catching Manuela. “Grab on.”

Carefully, she moved herself around so that her arms and legs were wrapped around Leon, since she wouldn’t be able to find purchase otherwise. She cautioned a look up and saw that the device had been a grappling hook. She heaved a sigh of relief as they hung suspended.

“Won’t fall for this old trick,” Leon commented spitefully, firing a shot at a listening device high above them. A small smile came to her face as she heard Salazar squeal like a girl above them. It was fleeting though, as Salazar sounded truly pissed.

“How dare you! No more games! Kill them!” Salazar commanded. “Quickly! We shall prepare for the ritual!”

“Damn it, we have to move fast.” Leon glanced down passed Manuela, trying to gauge the distance. Too far to fall, and he didn’t have much more rope. He had no doubt that trying to go back up would be suicidal, as they would be killed the second one of their heads popped over the top.

“Let me try to get down.” Carefully, Manuela pulled herself around Leon, laying against his chest, balanced precariously. “Could you get a little closer to the wall?”

Leon obliged, focusing intently as he crouched. Manuela shakily reached out, one hand steadying herself on Leon. Unsheathing a blade, she drove it into the wall. Testing it carefully, she drove in the other one, and then slid off Leon. She swung under the blades, hanging from them. Planting her feet, she managed to prop herself against the wall.

“Okay. Try to get on my back. We can scale down from here.” Leon nodded, walking along the wall carefully. He slid both his arms around her stomach, and tensed his core to hold his legs steady. Quickly, he tapped a release on his hook, allowing him movement. As he hung on, he could feel Manuela’s musculature at work, and was surprised at just how muscular she was. A side effect of the virus, no doubt.

After the grueling climb down, Leon was confident they were close enough to the ground that they could manage the landing. “I’m going to let go, okay?”

“You think you can make it?”

“I should be able to. Once I land, I’ll catch you.” Leon saw her nod and he turned his gaze down. Focusing, he tilted his body closer to the wall, taking a deep breath before letting go. He bent his legs, and tucked into a roll as he hit the ground. He found his head going under murky water and he stood up completely soaked from the roll. After checking to make sure the coast was clear, he walked under Manuela. “Okay, I’m ready.”

Manuela nodded and he could see her prepare herself. A loud screech could be heard as her claws retracted and she came down towards him. He caught her under her back and legs, bobbing slightly to compensate for the speed. Gently, he set her down on her feet.

“Let’s not do that again, okay?” Manuela joked with a slight smile, brushing aside a strand of wind-strewn hair.

“So I guess I shouldn’t take you skydiving then?” he retorted, pulling out his gun.

“I’d like to stay on my feet for now. We’ll just have to do something else when we get out of here.” Leon opened his mouth to speak, but was interrupted by a roar from somewhere deeper in the caverns. Two pistols raised up to meet the unknown threat.

“I’ll take point.”
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