The room went completely black for several seconds before something bright flared up, slicing through the dark and hurting my eyes. After my vision adjusted, I looked around. Suyef held a staff in hand, one end swallowed in fire.
"Do I want to know where you had that hidden?" I nodded at the staff.
He shook his head and shifted around the room, holding out his makeshift torch. "Something's wrong."
"You think?" Donovan muttered, moving to stand next to me.
Quentin remained where he was at the table. Suyef stepped near the door, the light from his torch casting ominous shadows across the walls. The door remained sealed at his approach.
"So much for a power outage freeing us," Quentin stated.
Suyef moved around, torch shifting up and down as he searched all around us.
"What are you looking for?" Donovan whispered.
Suyef held up a single finger to silence him. My brother shot me a glare which I only half saw in the flickering light. The Nomad continued his investigation. As he did, a sound tickled at my hearing. I turned my head toward Quentin.
"Did you say something?"
He shook his head at me. I turned around to face the door, eyes focused on the entry, head cocked to one side. Donovan moved close to my side.
"What is it?"
"Shh," I hissed, waving at him.
He grumbled then fell silent. I cocked my head the other way and closed my eyes. The sound hung just audible to my ears, flitting past like a soft breeze tugging at my braid. I stepped toward the door and heard a louder burst, a pop that split the air.
"I heard that," Quentin said, shifting behind me.
Everyone froze where they stood, heads turning this way and that. I stepped closer and heard a faint hum.
"Suyef, put out the light," I whispered.
Darkness plunged down around us. With the sound of the flames gone, I heard only breathing, my heartbeat, and a slight bit of static. I turned my head back toward the entrance and saw a thin glow emitting from the wall panel beside the entry.
"Is that panel on?" Quentin shifted in the dark, but I didn't hear any footsteps.
"I think it might be." I stepped toward the dim source of light.
As I did, another pop of static echoed through the room, accompanied by a faint echo that sounded like a voice.
"Dange..." the voice said.
"Something is very not right here," Quentin whispered.
"...nger..." The sound danced past my ears, the last letter dragged out and distorted.
I leaned near the panel and saw a myriad of alternating white and black dots dancing on the screen. Another pop shifted past my ears, and the dots swirled and waved.
"Hello," I called at the screen.
Donovan jumped behind me. "I heard that. Did that voice say ‘help’?"
I nodded. "Who is it?" I asked the screen. "Do you need help?"
The screen swirled once more, the voice bursting past in a rush. "...dan…r...help yo..."
"Do you need our help?" I said to the screen again.
The screen swirled yet again, and an image coalesced from the dizzying lines. I heard a hiss behind me.
"Is that a person?" Quentin asked, stepping near me.
Donovan moved up on the other side. "Looked like it."
I waved at them to be quiet. "Hello? Do you need help?"
"I think she said 'help you'," Donovan whispered at me. Louder, he said to the screen, "Yes, we need help."
Several pops echoed into the room, along with a deep distorted sound and a high-pitched whistle. Through the cacophony, a voice slipped through.
"You're in danger. I'm trying to help you!"
"What danger?" I asked, my heart pounding in my chest.
Behind us, Suyef hissed, drawing our attention.
"Something is out there," he whispered as his staff reignited. "Beyond the wall. Lots of things."
I turned back to the screen and froze. Next to me, I heard Donovan choke. Quentin whistled.
"What is it?" Suyef asked.
When none of us spoke, the Nomad moved over and shifted Donovan out of the way. I knew when his eyes fell upon the screen because he froze, his breath cutting off after a sharp intake.
"How is that possible?" Donovan asked from just behind my right shoulder.
I shook my head, leaning close to the screen. A single image lay frozen, bent in the middle. Every now and then a row of lines slid down the screen, bending the image as they went. The face never changed.
The image shifted, fading a bit as it began to move. The voice returned, too distorted to identify.
"...he's coming. The black..." Static overwhelmed the voice for a moment. "...Shadow assas...beware their..."
Another pop of warped bass bent the voice to an unintelligible garble. At the same time, the image froze, the face clearly visible again. My face. There was no doubt.
"How is your face talking to us from the panel, Micaela?" Donovan asked.
I moved back, eyes never leaving the panel. "This is a trick," I said, looking at Quentin and Suyef in turn.
The fiery light cast shadows around their features, making it hard to see them. I could feel their eyes, though.
"This is a trick," I insisted. "Do you have something to do with this?"
Quentin opened his mouth to respond, but never got the chance.
At that instant, the sound of metal bending out of place tore through the air and an echoing boom shook the room, knocking us to the wall. The screen, now unfrozen, let forth with a burst of audio just above my head.
"Beware the shadows! I'll try to help you!"
The lights flickered on, flooding the quarters with a painful brightness. As I blinked to clear my vision, another loud tremor shook the structure and the sound of groaning metal echoed past us. Once my eyes adjusted, I looked over at the far wall and saw nothing but distorted, twisted metal.
"What did that?" Donovan asked.
Suyef growled, shifting to stand between us and the wall. "Something big." He looked at Quentin. "Very big."
"Another dragon?" I guessed.
The room shook, massive blows striking the wall. As I watched, part of the wall buckled inward then peeled back out toward the sky. Through the gash in the structure, I saw darkness. Another blast knocked me to my feet as more of the wall and part of the roof peeled away. The lights flickered, threatening to go dark. Just as I thought they might give up, they flared to their brightest. I shielded my eyes from the glowing light.
Suyef hissed, shifting toward the left wall. "Watch the shadows," he whispered. "Something is in them."
"Shouldn't we worry about what's out there?" Donovan asked as Quentin moved to cover the other side of the room, brandishing a piece of the wall in one hand.
Before Suyef could reply, a shadow leapt out from the darkness over his head and toward me. The black shape melted into a human form, one arm raised over its head to strike me. Suyef's flaming staff struck the attacker square in his exposed side, and he burst into flame. Fire engulfed him for a moment before the mass imploded and vanished, taking the fire with it.
"Shadow assassins," Quentin muttered. "That's what you were telling us."
"That wasn't me," I insisted, waving at the screen.
"Sure looked like you," Donovan muttered from my other side.
The room shook once more as another swath of the ceiling ripped away, exposing us to the night. Behind us, the door hissed open as two guards ran in. Before they could so much as speak, a shadow dropped from a beam just overhead. Arms coalesced around their necks and lifted the men off the ground while they grabbed at their throats.
"Down!" Suyef cried out, swinging his flaming staff at the shadow as Donovan and I dropped to the floor.
The two guards crumpled to the ground when the creature imploded under Suyef's strike like the other had. Neither of the men moved.
"Get out the door," Quentin called out, kneeling to grab the men's firearms as he waved us on.
More shadows dropped into the room as another deafening tremor shook the structure, what remained of the outer wall peeling away as the structure trembled. Pushing Donovan before me, I bolted from the room just as bright blasts of light began to strike all around us. Donovan dove to the left as we exited, and I tried to go right, but my foot slipped, sending me careening into the far wall across from the door. Quentin stood in the opening, unloading blasts of air pulses into the shadows. Suyef darted around, his staff ablaze, each strike dispatching another shadow.
"Move!” Quentin yelled.
Donovan rushed over and pulled me up. We raced down the hall in the direction I'd tried to dive. Behind me, I heard the sound of more shadows dropping. Flickering firelight behind us told me Suyef was still fighting them off, even as I heard Quentin's pulse guns hiss over and over. More tremors shook the hall as other guards appeared, armed to the teeth. Blasts of light shot past us, taking out a few of the guards. More of the ceiling ripped away just overhead as we dove to the floor around a corner into another entryway. Prison guards filled the hallway, side-arms drawn and firing shots down the hall. Shadows fell all around them, some taking out guards, others imploding from air pulses. Donovan pushed me up and we rushed farther down the hall.
"Stay with them!" Suyef called out. "Stay with them!"
I risked a glance back and saw Quentin leaping over a fallen guard, his pulse guns blazing in every direction. Suyef's staff whirled in a dizzying swirl of fire, dispatching shadows with hissing pops.
Suddenly, the hallway jolted to one side, and I fell into a wall. Donovan crumpled down just beyond me, clutching his ankle. Another section of ceiling ripped away in an explosion of tearing metal and electric pops, sending sparks down all around us. I curled into a ball to protect my head and saw Quentin stumbling over another guard, a shadow right behind him.
"Look out!" I screamed just as he rolled to the ground.
Suyef's staff spun into sight, knocking the shadow into oblivion. Quentin finished his roll on his feet and the pair rushed at us.
"Get up!" the Nomad hissed, rushing past me and grabbing at Donovan.
"I can't move my ankle," my brother said between clenched teeth.
Quentin's hand appeared to pull me upright.
"Get her out of here," Suyef muttered, nodding us to go on. "I'll get him."
Despite my reluctance to leave my brother, Quentin and the sound of more shadows approaching from the way we had come overwhelmed my trepidation. We rushed down the hall as Suyef's staff reignited; a blaze of pops and hisses echoed after us.
"What are those things?" I asked Quentin when we slowed at a junction.
"Shadow assassins. Not really sure where they come from. No one's seen hide or tail of them for centuries," he said, leaning to look down a hall to his right. "But we know of them. From Ancient times. Something made during a great war some experts theorize led to the Splitting."
"How did they get here? And why?" Another tremor shook the building. "And what is doing that?"
Before Quentin could answer, the ceiling ripped away off the structure right above us. Shards of metal and debris rained down all around. My instinct was to drop and tuck into a ball, but a shove from behind sent me careening on wobbly legs down the left hallway.
"Don't stop!" Quentin yelled. "Keep going."
I heard the sound of shadows dropping to the ground, a soft thump followed by a hiss. Adrenaline pulsed through my body and I raced down the hall. Behind me, I heard Quentin's pulse guns going off non-stop. More of the ceiling began to peel away, following me down the hall. As it did, more shadows dropped into sight, separating us.
"Quentin!" I yelled, drawing his attention.
He turned his guns forward, unloading everything he could into the new shadows now chasing me, leaving his back exposed. My momentum carried me around a bend in the hall before I saw what happened to him.
Something solid dropped to the ground in front of me, and I slammed to a halt, colliding full speed with hard metal as a hand wrapped itself around my throat. My head turned forward to see a grotesque, twisted suit of armor, layered pieces of hard metal folding around a giant body. A warped helmet sat atop the shoulders, sharp jagged edges sweeping out and upward from the crown. A slit of black glass covered the eyes and a smaller slit the mouth.
From that smaller opening, a raspy, male voice hissed down at me, "Well, well, look what we have here."
The hand tightened, and my feet left the floor. I grabbed his arm, trying to claw the hand free as my lungs began to burn. I kicked my feet at him and only succeeded in finding a small foothold in a crevice of the armor to push up and relieve my neck.
"You have one chance to give me what I want, or I'll make you and your little brother suffer more than this entire world has suffered," the creature whispered, pulling my face to within inches of the armored mask.
I coughed, forcing out words as my lungs struggled for air. "I...I...don't know...what...you want!"
"I don't want excuses," the creature hissed, his other hand grabbing my torso. He slammed me up against a wall, knocking what little air remained in my lungs out. "Now, give it to me."
I shook my head, pushing at his armored glove with my fingers. "I don't know what you want."
"For the last time, girl, give it to me," he bellowed, shaking me. "I know you have it. You've always had it. I know it's the source of your power."
I coughed, sputtering as he shook me and screamed in my face. I struggled to breathe, willing my lungs to pull in air.
Instead, a disconcerting darkness swallowed me.
A shaft of light burst through, slicing my head open from the inside. I squeezed my eyes shut against the intruding light and rolled over, covering my face with my hands. I coughed, and a shock of pain rocked my body. Only then did it dawn on me I could breathe. Risking a peek, I saw a wall just inches from my nose. Turning my head in the other direction, I spied a pair of armored boots.
"Ah, you're awake," the creature hissed.
His armored hand grasped my braid and jerked me to my feet. Pain ripped through my head like fire, and I cried out.
"That's just a taste of the pain I'll cause if you don't give it to me," he whispered, leaning his armored face down near mine.
"What? Give you what?"
A blast of light hit the wall over his head, and he jerked me down. His other hand pulled out a firearm of his own and pulses of bright light burst from it down the hall. The creature barked something unintelligible, and shadows dropped to the ground all around. Tremors continued to shake the building as the shadows moved back in the direction the creature had just fired.
"Get up," he hissed, yanking my braid.
I stumbled to my feet and rushed after him, his hand still holding firm to my braid. Behind, the sounds of pulse guns and the strange firearms these attackers carried filled the air. I heard men scream and cry out. I heard hisses and pops. I heard the sounds of death.
The creature seemed nonplussed. He marched along, muttering words I couldn't understand, all the while jerking my hair to keep me off balance and following.
"Please, I don't know what you want," I whispered through clenched teeth. "I don't have anything."
"Oh, you have it. I know you do," he said, a deep throaty laugh bursting from his helmet. "And you will give it to me."
He stopped, pulling me up to stare into his armored face, his hand yanking my braid back to pin my neck in a painful and exposed position. I felt a finger from his other hand brush along my throat and tap just below my chin.
"You've escaped me for too long, you little ketch. Not this time."
An air pulse blasted into his side, sending us sprawling down the hall. I rolled away from the armored behemoth even as strange voices cried out from the direction the pulse shot had come from. I didn't waste any time looking. The creature moved to stand, and I scrambled away, kicking at his hand. As I did, I saw his firearm lying just to my side. His hand latched on to my foot, gripping it like a vice, just as my hand grabbed at the cool sides of the weapon. Without thinking, I yanked it up to aim at the armored monster crawling up along my legs. I squeezed what I hoped was the trigger and a blast of light shot out, knocking the weapon backwards and up over my head. The shot hit him square in the shoulder, and he fell off me, screaming. I kicked at his wound to push myself free and scrambled to my feet.
Shadows shifted around the bend toward us, and I did the only thing I could think to do. Gripping the gun with two hands this time, I took aim and unloaded blasts of light at them. They hissed out of existence with a satisfying pop. As the last one imploded before me, something hit my legs, knocking me down onto my backside. The weapon clattered out of my hands as the armored creature struggled toward me. Kicking his face one more time, I pushed myself up and fled down the hall.
A terrifying scream echoed past me, and the entire hallway rocked and shook. Another section of ceiling ripped away as the echo faded, filling the room with smoke and debris. I dodged around pieces of metal as more shadows thumped down behind me. The ripping destruction followed me down the hall. Pulses of air filled the hall, met by blasts of light that cast strange shadows up around me for an instant and startled me. Still I ran. I didn't dare look back for fear of what I'd see. Shadows coming close. The creature on his feet, chasing me. More of the ceiling coming down.
Another rumble shook the floor under me, sending me sprawling into an entryway. The doors slid open, and I tumbled into another set of living quarters. I spun around to see the doors hiss shut, sealing me off for the moment. I knew it would not last. Casting about for somewhere to hide, I heard something slam into the doors. Rushing across the space past the table, I looked back to see the doors buckle and fold back into the room. The armored creature stumbled in from the hall, screaming. As the sound echoed, the floor and walls began to shake. He stepped toward me as the structure shook with a great force. As before, the ceiling trembled and crumpled down before peeling back. Repeated tremors shook the room and I dove beyond the table as it tumbled away from the door. The wall along the far side shuddered and fell away as the roof ripped free. The table shifted up against my back as wind rushed in, grabbing at my cloak and scarf.
An armored hand darted into sight, grabbing my cloak at my chest and pinning me in place. I struggled to get free as he knelt down over me.
"Last chance, ketch. Give it to me, or this is the end of your too-long life."
I glared up into his eye slit. Anger filled me and I spat up into his face.
"Even if I did have it, I wouldn't give it to you," I yelled at the monster's armored helm. "And you'd kill me anyway, so rot in the core!"
A rumble shook his torso, and a rumbling laugh emanated from the mouth slit.
"Fiery to the end. At least you are consistent." His hand raised overhead, a wicked-looking, black dagger held tight in his grasp. "I've waited too long to do this."
His hand plunged downward, and I started to turn my head when a hiss filled the room. A blast of light struck the creature square in the top of his head. He froze, blade inches from my chest. His hand trembled and the eye slit flared red. With a great shudder, the armored monster fell to one side, the blade tumbling harmlessly away.
My entire body trembled as I pushed the lifeless form off me. The adrenaline fled my limbs, and my body shook uncontrollably, tears pouring from my face. Pushing myself up, I looked back at the remains of the door.
Filling the entry, the creature's weapon I'd dropped in hand, stood Quentin.